Waking Up

Short Story
Mar 1, 2020
A man wakes up, hungover, in his over-large bed and realizes a moment too late that he’s not alone.
“Good morning!”, she says, big eyelashes hovering a centimeter from his face.
“Oooh, hi. I smell coffee?”, the man mumbles out.
“Oh. Yes, I'd love some! With creamer if you’ve got it.”
Ben gets out of bed, quickly puts on boxer-briefs and steals a quick glance at her while closing the wardrobe. She has a slender build, blonde hair and a scar on her right cheek – a permanent reminder of an acne-ridden adolescence. He doesn't know her, but there's a possibility; nope, a certainty. She’s wearing Brenda’s clothes. His right hand tenses up. She can’t wear Brenda’s...
His hand tenses.
Coffee first, always coffee first.
His kitchen was small, but adequate. The coffee maker – a run of the mill $100 Keurig machine from Costco – was probably the most utilized item in his house. It used to be the microwave, but he hasn’t replaced the broken one built into the cabinetry.
Coffee used to be a ritual. You buy whole beans from an expensive, ethically-sourced coffee roaster in mid-town; grind them up in The Sharper Image coffee grinder you stole from a former roommate; put in a coffee filter – a brown one, unbleached and made of organic fibers – and measure out the grounds, dump, start the Mr. Coffee. For ten minutes the apartment fills with the sounds of ambient dripping and there’s an exciting smell in the air. You pour yourself a glass and stare at it until the temperature cools down enough to drink it.
Nowadays, you put barely recyclable white pods — made of non-toxic and scientifically-advanced polymers —into a black contraption and press the glowing button. Boom, instant coffee for the 21st Century. This one even has a carafe so he can make coffee for himself and the stranger lying in his bed. It’s a modern miracle.
“My name’s Carissa, by the way.” Sly glance from the woman, red cheeks on the man.
“I knew that. I knew that, for sure. Yeah.” He chuckles a little and she smiles back. “I’m Ben.”
“Well, nice to meet you. Ben.” She looks down at the carpet while somehow also looking at him, "Do you remember where we met last night?"
“Honestly, not a clue. I don’t want to upset you, you seem very nice. I don’t doubt that.”
“Ha, no. I’ve been told that I’m a generic looking person. My first name is actually Rachel, not Carissa. I use my middle name because it adds a air of mystery. My clothes are pretty generic – 60% Kohl’s, 35% Thrift-store, 5% Forever 21." She's pacing around now, "my hair has been cut by the same middle aged, white housewife at a place called Unique Chic for the past decade. I go for a Martha Stewart, pre-incarceration look. I graduated middle of my class in '09 and I work in an unspeakably grim office building downtown. It’s a whole…”
His coffee pod was still brewing and, while he was hearing most of what she just said, it was all waiting in the queue to be processed by his prefrontal cortex. He impulsively cuts her off, "Well, thanks for the information, Carissa."
Heavy silence follows, tempered only by the coffee maker's hiss and the light coming in through his old, one-ply curtains from Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
Ben thought it was kind of nice having someone in his bed for once. Last-night-him was somehow comfortable enough to bring a woman home, so maybe he should be more grateful for the opportunity.
Walk over, pour myself a cup of coffee, forget, grab a second, pour another cup, fridge, pass the creamer.
“Thanks”, Carissa says, enunciating a bit too much. She stares intently at her host.
“Can I ask where you got your gown?” Ben asks, sounding unsure himself.
“Umm, that hanger over there? It looked unisex. Is that okay? I looked around for clothes after you fell asleep. My clothes were wet”, she points at the wooden, base model IKEA chair in the corner, “but I didn’t expect to have to sleep in someone else’s apartment and I can’t sleep naked.”
Ben turns his head to side like a puppy, looking at a slice of kosher hot dog.
He turns his head back upright, then tilts it back — big stretch — then slumps forward and dangles into the chair. “Well, those are my wife’s clothes. Or, err, they were my wife’s clothes – she died in April.”
April. Carissa gathers a sense of time and it's October. “Oh. I’m sorry. I...”
“No, no, you’re fine. Sorry. You’re just the first to wear it since. Honestly, it’s kind of nice, I wasn't sure anyone would ever wear them again.”

Carissa suddenly felt awkward. Like she had stepped through the wrong door and ended up in someone’s else’s life when she had intended to get on the Q to Brooklyn. Like those stories on 60 Minutes where babies get switched at birth and both mother and daughter can’t shake the feeling that they’re in the wrong place, wrong family, but can’t express that they feel that way. Something deeply instinctual doesn't align and they'll never have a comfortable Thanksgiving. They just cook the cornbread, whisk the gravy, and assume it's all normal.
“Do you want me to take it off? Let me take it off.”
“No really, really you’re fine. Relax. I’m...” He sat down on the Ikea workbench he uses less like a workbench and more like a shitty coffee table.
“Ugh… Honestly when she died, I was relieved. I loved her, I really did, but we got married young – too young for our own good. She was a good person and I loved her until the day she died and still do, but I don’t think I was cut out to be a husband.”
Silence again. Carissa looked at her feet – hobbit-like, by far her least favorite part of her body.
“Was it sudden?”
“Car crash. The medics said instant, but I’m not sure if that’s true – she was a fighter.”
Ben finished his cup, stood up, put it in the sink, and sank back into the sofa. Carissa stood and studied the spacious, previously tidy two bedroom apartment.
“Hey, I’m going to be honest here; I don’t think I’m prepared for this kind of conversation. I don’t handle conflict well – like at all.” She looked morose and then blurted “I once had a cat who was a piece of shit to me and I just let it outside and it never came back. I faked crying on the phone with my mom twice to throw her off my trail.”
Ben looked up at her and smirked. “You did the right thing. I fucking hate cats.”