"We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone.
Only through love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone" -Orson Welles
The cold wind caused Blu’s face to flush as she reluctantly walked to work, which was only a block or two away from her small, city center apartment. Her steps were quiet, and she gracefully maneuvered past the strangers who elbowed by her. Blu’s head was held high with her sweatshirt’s hood covering her ears. Her hands were wrapped in cozy grey, woolen gloves, balled into the ends of her oversized, golden hoodie’s sleeves, and even more so clenched into the too long sleeves of the jean jacket she’d inherited from her father years prior. Her clunky, worn out, black combat boots with little to no traction left on the soles, due to excessive use, slid from time to time on the slick leftover ice from yesterday’s light snow and lazy store owners who hadn’t yet shoveled their storefronts. She could feel her nose begin to run and her cheeks were becoming so cold that they felt as though they were burning. Despite her best efforts to rub away the snot with her sleeves, it would be as quickly replaced as it was wiped away. The deceivingly close proximity of her workplace had allowed Blu to convince herself that this was the perfect job to accept; however, she now found herself suffering the consequences of her rash Springtime decision. She silently cursed her frugal nature not allowing her to purchase a bus pass as her body shook from her frosty surroundings.
Her eyes narrowed to mere slits, fighting against the wind, as she tried to read the signs above the doors of the various muddy brown, light beige, and red brick buildings this part of the city was littered with. Blocks in this neighborhood were slightly longer than average, as the architects had crammed as many narrow buildings in a line as they could before they began to block frequently used streets. Where there used to be at least a few alleyways before reaching a main road, builders had built up slim homes or gated grass areas–which they lamely labeled as ‘parks.’ This particularly long street that Blu both lived and worked on was a melting pot of lower end restaurants, apartments, houses, and shops.
Most of the signs along the street were unlit, closed to the public after 6:30 p.m. on Sunday evenings; however, the sign that Blu was looking for would be the one that was accompanied by the only other store open at this time of day. The shop Blu was searching for was the owner of an obnoxiously neon green sign where the “S”s would flicker once or twice every few seconds. Sweeny’s Style Store was a shop filled wall-to-wall with off brand items, from clothes to home goods and its location was ideal, despite its shortcomings in the luxury department. The community had just begun to come to life again, the plans of gentrifying this specific neighborhood had gone surprisingly smoother than anticipated, and stores like Sweeny’s were thriving. This part of the city was re-done the cheapest, which is the reason behind so many of the old occupants being able to afford to stay; however, this created the cluttered atmosphere of the crammed together bargain shopping stores and low-quality buildings visitors see today. Even so, it was still a step up compared to what it was five years ago.
Blu pushed her way into the somewhat busy off-brand store and the little, yet strangely loud, bell chimed as she walked in. The too-heavy door shut painfully slow behind her due to the strong winds outside keeping it from slamming shut–which it usually did on warmer days. She continued through the store, avoiding eye contact with the employees and patrons alike, walking towards the back, and passing through a second door labeled “Stairs to Chip’s Cakes Only.” The lettering of the door’s white paper label had been harshly crossed out in red sharpie with a sticker carelessly slapped across it that read: “Closed.” Blu jogged up the long staircase to the second story of the building which housed the nearly impossible to get to open bakery. The staircase walls were too narrow, the paint was chipping from lack of care and attention; but more noticeably, however, was the fact that the sole ceiling recess light fixture had been ever-so gradually falling out of its place each day that Blu has passed since her first in mid-March. Webs populated with well-fed spiders and their food hung carelessly in every corner. Blu made the sharp turn on the stair’s landing, heading up the second, much smaller flight of stairs to shove open the door, which often got stuck, with her shoulder. “Blu is that you?” The voice of Blu’s employer, and only co-worker, chimed from behind the counter, though no one was in sight.
The second floor of the building was decidedly smaller than the ground floor, which was a rather terrible design oversight that was blindly approved by B-team architects. The hidden staircase Blu had climbed to get to the regularly unoccupied confectionary was one of three in the building. The second was on the outside of the building and looked dangerously as though someone had cheaply crossed a fire-escape with a stairway, and it only goes to the second floor; meanwhile, the third was yet another internal staircase that skipped the second floor entirely, continuing straight into Kiara Cuts and Brianna Braids hair-salon on the third floor. Their hair dryer chairs shook Chip’s Cakes’ ceiling, causing hair and dust to fall into the bakery through cracks in the wooden floorboards; sweeping and dusting was a twice (sometimes thrice) called for daily chore.
The whole second floor would only uncomfortably fit three round tables, not one looked like the others, with four short bar stools shoved underneath each table, all of which were found at various flea markets and sort-of reupholstered. They sat opposite of what could be classified as a small white counter–which in reality was a nightstand, poorly spray-painted ivory, that happened to be unusually tall and wide with an outdated cash register centered on top. A short, baked goods display case (the only new furnishing in Chip’s Cakes) was attached haphazardly to the counter’s side with a few screws and some nails. Behind the fancy new display case, ignoring the splintering wood from someone clearly not skilled in the art of successfully attaching the two furnishings together, was a long shelf, for packaging to-go pastries. This shelf hung at a decent height for the average male, yet slightly too tall for the shorter than average female Blu. Lastly, the world’s tiniest public bathroom, with the world’s thinnest walls, was shoved in the corner by the staircase that led to the hair-salon.
“Yeah, it’s me, Vinny,” Blu responded in a raspy voice, teeth still chattering as she began squeezing herself through the little gap between the display case and the cream-colored wall–this happened to be the only way to get behind the counter. She just managed to shove herself through, stumbling a bit on the other side which caused her clunky Dr. Martens to thump on the wooden floor boards, shaking Sweeny’s ceiling below–she secretly wished her heavy steps formed a dust shower over Sweeny’s cashier’s counter, where the horrible manager surely sat with his signature dumb thin-lipped smile and his phone glued to his left hand. She spotted Vinny laying on his back on the floor, his head resting on a stack of gossip and bridal magazines from the 90’s. “You alright, Vinny?” Blu’s question came from a place of simultaneous concern and slight curiosity. She could never imagine herself in his position; she thought herself as never being secure enough to let someone see her in such a state.
“No. I’m miserable, distraught, and utterly devastated,” Vinny cried out, dramatically draping his arm over his eyes and reaching out his other hand toward the ceiling.
“Oh, okay.” Blu stammered, her nose twitching slightly. She slowly slipped off her jean jacket and threw it to the floor beneath the shelf for packaging pastries; she was feeling overwhelmed, and slightly uncomfortable from the theatrical display of grief. Even though she and Vinny had become, surprisingly, fast friends in the span of the eight or so months she had been working for him, she had never been good with expressing emotion, nor had she ever been good at understanding the reasons behind others complex feelings.
“No, it’s not okay!” Vinny snapped back, removing his arm from his eyes long enough to glare at Blu, only to put his arm back where it was after he felt as though he had sufficiently made his disdain obvious enough. “It’s that stupid fucker from downstairs again, you know the one with the dreamy eyes and to-die-for biceps?”
“I wouldn’t call his eyes dreamy per say…” Blu shrugged, moving to the nightstand that the cash register rested on, lazily putting on her pastel pink apron uniform. The apron, that used to be a table cloth, was adorned with a large overall’s denim pocket crudely sewn onto the cheap pink material with thick purple thread. Her name was embroidered in ugly script near her right shoulder in, thinner than the purple, navy blue thread. It was an odd uniform, but Blu loved it; she loved that not even the work uniform was uniform. Vinny’s apron was light blue, with a peculiar geometric pattern that showed his uneven scissor work on what was previously a curtain. His name was in thick gold thread near his right shoulder and on the midriff was a makeshift pocket cut from a child’s white graphic t-shirt adorned with a print of Tweety Bird. The aprons had a unique vibe, much like the rest of the bakery, and Blu found herself falling in love with the atmosphere of random things that don’t necessarily belong, but somehow all fit together on this floor of misfits. Blu knew this environment of mismatched furnishings was not Vinny’s first choice, or his second, or even his third for that matter, and she knew that Vinny had dreamed something much bigger for his business. He had this whole idea in his head about how this place was going to be the cutest, most pink confectionary on this side of the Mississippi, and everyone was going to flock to his bakery. All he wanted in life was Chip’s Cakes, but money was tight, promises were broken, and this was the outcome.
“Dreamy enough, but anyways, as I was saying–he did it again.” His small button nose flared, and even though Blu couldn’t see his eyes, she knew he was going to cry. That was just one of the more poetic contradictions of Blu’s existence. She had a talent for reading people, she recognized and could immediately sense how someone was feeling, but she had no knowledge on how to comfort others in a time of distress or how to handle someone being too excitable. Working with Vinny, a well-known emotional rollercoaster, has helped her tremendously with her reactions to these intense highs and lows. She is exponentially more compassionate towards people in times of extreme feeling now than she had been. Rather than being distant, uncomfortable and seemingly cold, she has learned to try empathizing with others through asking questions.
However, people don’t change like seasons, they change like decades: slowly and with hints of the years before.
Blu responded simply to Vinny, using the advice of the grandparents who had raised her, as a way to both end the difficult conversation while also offering what, in her mind, was an easy solution to the situation, “There is a reason people say: ‘Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me.’” Although her voice wasn’t harsh, it was clear to Blu that her words hurt Vinny. His shoulders sagged, and he didn’t respond right away, an enormous red flag that he was upset. She hadn’t meant to hurt his feelings, then again, she never means to hurt people’s feelings.
Blu nudged Vinny with her shoe after a minute passed of pure silence and, for once, the silence was deafening to Blu as her curiosity ate at her conscience, “Vin?”
“Yes, Blu?” Vinny answered, his voice was far off, as though he was thinking very hard.
“Why do you keep letting him hurt you?” Blu asked sincerely. She couldn’t understand why Vinny would continue to let Chris, the manager of Sweeny’s downstairs, consistently and deliberately build him up, only to wreck his whole life after finally getting Vinny to trust him again. This was the second time Blu has witnessed Vinny be heartbroken by Chris, and she couldn’t think of a single reason why Vinny allowed Chris back in his life every time. Blu had thought for sure he was finished with Chris after finding Chris in bed with Vinny’s (now) ex-best friend three months ago. However, just a week after the act, Chris said he was ‘oh so sorry’ and with a heart-shaped tin of cheap gas station chocolates, a bouquet of last-day, swiftly decaying flowers from the local mini-mart, and a his infamous ‘angelic smile’–at least that’s Vinny’s description–Chris found himself once again in Vinny’s apartment; his right hand on Vinny’s thigh while pretending to listen to Vinny’s problem, but in his left hand was his cell with the Grindr app open and that’s what really occupied his attention.
To Blu, life was black or white–ironically enough considering her name. There weren’t any grey areas in her life–like loving someone who so clearly wasn’t interested in her–and her hippie parents often joked that her name was Blu, rather than the correctly spelled b-l-u-e because even at birth she was always just one letter shy of being a vibrant child; however, through conversation with her straight-laced maternal grandparents, Blu knew that the spelling was just an error, the first of many, on her father’s part during a particularly good “trip” at the hospital.
To Blu the idea of having mixed feelings was bizarre, often considering it a pointless grey area in life, and Vinny was usually the person she turned to with these sorts of questions. Vinny was unlike the other people Blu has tried to connect with–he actually tried to answer her questions, rather than giving her the confused sideways glances accompanied by quick dismissals of the question that she was used to. This friendship was a learning experience for the both of them.
“I don’t know Blu, I don’t know.” Vinny replied. Finally, after dragging his arm from his eyes, he looked at Blu. He took in the sight of her, naturally mousy brown hair askew with a few random curls amongst the waves going in every direction but the right one. Wide, gentle grey eyes that watched him curiously and were always caught observing the world around them with starry-eyed inquisitiveness. She stood between him and the cash register with tense shoulders and pigeon-toed feet. Her right hand gripped her left arm near her elbow, wrinkling the golden sweatshirt material. With her right arm crossing over her pink apron clad body, how truly awkward she felt in that moment was obvious.
Vinny rose from his resting spot on the floor slowly. First sitting up, then carefully pushing himself off the ground, bringing the stack of sad magazines along with him, placing them on the shelf that was a few inches above his hips, he then leaned up against the bakery display case, no more than a foot away from Blu. The silence was once again deafening to Vinny, he usually liked to occupy the quiet with singing or nonstop chatter. He hated the silence, because when it was quiet there was nothing stopping him from getting stuck in his own thoughts–which weren’t always as positive as he liked to portray them to be, “Perhaps it’s because I know I don’t deserve any better. Maybe I was just meant to be the guy that other guys see as temporary.”
Vinny’s voice was quiet, it was lower than normal, and his ordinarily tanned skin seemed to get paler as he spoke. His expressive and vibrant blue eyes were dim, and the pink lipped smile that was usually painted onto his face was turned into a flat line. His typically styled short brown hair was slouching off to one side. It’s funny how easily people reflect their genuine feelings in a time of much needed vulnerability.
Blu couldn’t help but think, as she looked at Vinny in this moment, that being sad didn’t suit him. “I think you deserve better,” Blu replied, her eyes flickering between Vinny’s blue eyes and his white high-top converse clad feet. “I think that people hurt you because you care so much. They think you’re weak because you’re passionate. What they don’t realize is that being passionate is your greatest strength.” Blu paused, only a moment of quiet passed before Blu surprised herself and continued, “You did all of this, you created a bakery, and you stuck with it even when everyone else ditched the dream at the first sign of trouble. Don’t let someone you know isn’t worth your time, make you feel that you’re the one not worth their time.” Blu’s words sounded unnatural to her own ears and her heart raced as she spoke. She felt dreadfully uncomfortable, but for some reason her mouth wouldn’t stop forming words, not until she was sure that Vinny would feel better, “Especially not someone who picks his nose and wipes it on the hem of his shirt, and someone who only wears slip on Vans, not for style, but because he’s too lazy to tie his own shoes.”
A moment of pure quiet filled the air around them. Vinny stared at Blu in shock, since this was the most he had ever gotten her to speak in one day since they had met, and Lord knows he has tried. Not to mention, he was not clueless to her discomfort at displaying affection. He knew that this was a big deal for her, her saying all of that trying to comfort him, and it was a big deal for him too. He knew how hard it was for her to express her thoughts and feelings, and if she had felt so empowered to say that to him, despite her uneasiness, he felt as though what she said was something he should acknowledge–even if it was hard for him to hear.
Vinny knew he shouldn’t cry, it would only make Blu feel even more uncomfortable than she already was, he knew it, but it didn’t stop the tears from pushing out of the corner of his eyes and his sniffling from a running nose as he reached out to give her the biggest hug of her life thus far. He pulled her into the hug and didn’t let go, instead he just whispered, “thank you” into her vanilla scented hair over and over again. Blu felt strange–she felt comfortable in his hug, something that was uncommon for her. She felt good knowing she had made Vinny feel at least a tiny bit better.
She gently nudged away from Vinny, to which he quickly apologized in response, announcing his understanding of her anxiety and blaming his enthusiastic nature; however, the re-energized smile that appeared on his face the moment they broke away didn’t fade for the rest of the evening. That night Vinny would go to sleep easily for the first time in a couple of days and with a grin on his face, looking forward to the next day. Blu returned his smile with a small smile of her own–a smile that Vinny was just barely a witness to, for it was so small you had to be looking for it in order to see it. She hushed him and began her usual work of counting the money in the register, listening to Vinny’s rambles and his many renditions of Santa Baby.
Perhaps this job was worth braving the cold after all.
Heather Nichole O'Brien is a recent graduate from Cleveland State University with a degree in English Literature. She's been previously published for both her fiction and nonfiction work. She is a self-proclaimed optimistic nihilist and often uses her ability to concentrate on the "little" things in her works.