2023 Short Story Competition

At the Cafe We Used to Frequent

Nina thought about the question very carefully, chasing the rim of her cup with the tip of
her finger. She valued the quiet inside of the café—it had a real weight to it. There was some sort
of significance in the silence. No one else occupied this warmly lit space, other than the two
people sitting before of her, and the lonely barista, who was noisily washing dishes in the back
and whistling along to the radio. 
Her uncle was waiting for her answer with bright, anxious eyes. Nina felt a sudden rush
of affection for him.
He really ought to just tell me I told you so, you silly girl… he has every right to, she
thought. But Uncle Neal wouldn’t even think of it. He’s too kind.
“Still recovering,” she said finally, after her finger had circled her cup again: one full
That’s natural,” said Grandma briskly. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to recover quickly.”
Nina was struck again by her matter-of-fact manner… and by the forgotten curler on the
left side of her grandmother’s head. There was practical Grandma, sitting straight as a rod, her
cashmere sweater rolled up to her elbows. It was a strange juxtaposition: the pearl earrings, the
elegance of her movements… the purple curler in her white hair, the unceremoniously pushed-up
Uncle Neal hadn’t noticed it, or he would’ve pointed it out immediately. But then again,
dear Uncle Neal was quite easily distracted, and could not be blamed for failing to notice his
surroundings when his mind drifted.

“These things take time, princess,” Uncle Neal said gently. “Don’t be too hard on
He reached for a cookie and it went down like paper in a shredder.
“Neal,” Grandma said, exasperated. “Neal, for crying out loud. Oh, heavens. How long
have I been your mother? I never did manage to teach you table manners.”
“Hm?” Uncle Neal said cluelessly, looking at his mother.
“Oh, never mind,” she said, too fond of him to be really upset. “Anyway, dear, it’s only
natural. When I met your grandfather, I’d just broken off a relationship that had been drawing
dangerously close to an engagement. I didn’t even consider your grandfather until we’d been
good friends for a few years, and it took another six months before I let him court me. These
things do take time, and in cases such as these, you should take your time. Don’t rush into
another relationship, my dear.”
“Mother,” said Neal. It was his turn to be exasperated. The tips of his ears were even
starting to redden. “Nina didn’t say anything about getting into another relationship. She doesn’t
need to think about that right now.”
“That’s alright, Uncle Neal, I know what Grandma means,” Nina said peaceably. “I
won’t, Grandma. It’ll take a lot to persuade me into another one, I think.”
“But don’t let yourself get hard,” Grandma said, sipping her tea. “You’re the sensitive
artist type, much like your uncle. It’s easy to get hard after something like this. It’s easy to retreat
behind a walled gate.”
“I’ve been trying not to.” Nina sighed, dunking a cookie into her tea. “It’s difficult not to
resent him sometimes, you know. At first, I was just very, very sad. Now, if I think too deeply
about it, I start getting angry.”

“Good,” said Grandma, satisfied. “Remember that anger. Anger is much easier to put
down than sadness. It’s fine to be angry, dear, and perfectly justified. Just don’t let your anger
make you hard.”
“It’s alright to be sad, too,” Uncle Neal added. “It’s alright, princess. It isn’t easy.”
He looked at Nina anxiously, hoping that he’d said the right thing, or said what he’d
meant the right way. Nina, understanding him, smiled and handed him a cookie. 
She laughed when he demolished it the same way he’d done the first.
Grandma sighed. 
“Oh, you two,” she said. “Anyhow, dear, I’m glad to see that the old light’s back in your
eyes. I remember over the summer, right after you dumped that boy—”
“I didn’t dump him,” Nina said, suddenly dismayed.
“You did, darling, and it was the best decision you’ve made this year. You barely wrote
anything while you were with that boy! If that’s not a bad sign, I don’t know what is.”
Uncle Neal passed Nina a cookie by way of consolation. Nina took it morosely and
dunked it in her tea before she remembered that she really didn’t like getting crumbs in her cup.
“The point is, my dear, you were miserable over the summer. All you did was watch
Roman Holiday over and over again and work your way industriously through boxes and boxes
of tissues.”
Nina felt a horrible blush creeping upwards from her neck. The worst part about that
she thought morosely, is that it’s true.
“That’s perfectly fine,” said Grandma, waving her hand. “One needs to do what one
needs to do. When I first broke up with my first boyfriend—well, that’s another story entirely.

The point is, you watched Roman Holiday over and over again. And that’s where you got it
wrong, my dear. He wasn’t Gregory Peck.”
“Nobody’s like Gregory Peck,” Nina said primly.
“You know what I mean,” said Grandma, sighing (but nodding). “Care for some more
“Yes, please.”
They watched the perfect arc of tea flow from pot to cup in silence. Uncle Neal was
fidgeting with his napkin, which meant he was thinking hard about something.
“How are you feeling now, princess?” he said eventually. “How’s your heart faring?”
Nina looked outside the window. The street was dark with rain—it had been raining
furiously all day. Their raincoats were hanging on their chairs, still slick and wet. It had been so
sunny and bright yesterday, with a certain crispness in the air. And now the red and gold leaves
on the sidewalk and the curb were brown and mushy. November in the Pacific Northwest was
prosaic. It could be beautiful at times, yes, but now it was downright miserable.
“I think it’ll take some time before I stop being angry,” she admitted. “I’ve resigned
myself to not recovering instantly. It’s just… I think I’m a little afraid.”
“Of starting over?” asked Grandma.
“Well, that, too. But I’m mostly afraid that it wasn’t… real.”
She took a deep breath, wondering why it was so hard to put it into words. It made so
much sense in the tangled garden of her mind. But she supposed that a rose in one’s hand meant
different things to different people. 
“I’m a little afraid that it wasn’t love after all. I just feel so silly now that it’s over. Like it
didn’t mean anything at all, and I was turning a tiny thing into this grand picture in my head.”

“Did it mean anything to you, princess?” Uncle Neal said seriously, taking her hand in
his large, clumsy one. “Everything that happened?”
“It meant the world,” Nina whispered, and to her embarrassment, tears sprang to her eyes,
and it was all fresh again—as fresh as if it had happened moments ago. And then she was furious
with herself. Whenever she let herself remember that hurt, she felt like a little girl huddled in the
corner of her closet.
“Then it had all the meaning it needed to have,” Neal said, his voice as gentle as the first
stirring of a spring breeze. “It’s alright, Princess. I know the artistic tendency to make sense of
the world with beautiful words and such like, and to get a bit carried away trying to make things
fit into a story. But it wasn’t a figment of your imagination. And even if it were, it doesn’t make
it any less beautiful or painful.”
“It was real, all right,” said Grandma in her dry, practical way. “I’ve seen your uncle in
love, and he was just as sentimental and wistful over it as you were. Don’t worry about that,
poppet. It was as real as the nose on your face.”
“Mother,” Uncle Neal said plaintively, but Nina squeezed his hand to let him know that it
was okay.
“You know, this was the café we used to frequent,” she said slowly, heavily. “It was his
favourite place to get coffee. He used to like this… the window, the chairs, the cups…”
“Honey, that’s over-sentimental,” Grandma said briskly. “Over-sentimentality doesn’t
become you.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Nina said, brightening up. “Well, I never liked this café very much,
She looked around quickly to make sure the barista wasn’t hanging around.

“Not that it isn’t nice,” she said. “I just don’t like it.”
“Why meet here, then?” Uncle Neal asked. “We could’ve had tea at home. Or at that
place near the library with all the little tables.”
“I guess I wanted to make a new memory here,” Nina said. “I didn’t want to be afraid of
going to the places we used to go together, and this was the one I was most afraid of. Besides,
Uncle Neal,” she added, patting his hand, “I’m a lot braver with you and Grandma around.”
She took a sip of her tea and figured now was the best time to say it.
“Grandma, you do know that there’s a roller in your hair, right?”
Grandma nearly dropped her cup. Her accusing eyes darted from Nina to Uncle Neal. Her
hand went to her head.
“Has it been in my hair all this time? That’s perfectly awful! Neal, why didn’t you tell me
before we left the house?”
Uncle Neal was staring at the purple roller, as surprised as she was.
“I didn’t see it,” he offered meekly. “Otherwise, I would’ve told you.”
It felt good to laugh. The café, which had been so suffocating when she’d walked in,
filled with their laughter. Even the barista peeked in to see what the fuss was and smiled at the
sight of them by the window.
“What do I do now?” Nina said, once Grandma had tucked her roller into her purse.
“With everything that’s left, I mean.”
“You’re a poet,” said Grandma briskly. “Write about it.”
“Use that sharpness of yours,” said Uncle Neal suddenly. He was looking at her steadily.
“Use that sweetness. Use that sadness, even. Keep writing about it. That’ll help your heart. It
might hurt at times, but it’ll heal. It’s already starting to.”

The rain did not relent, but despite the deluge, they left a trail of laughter behind them on
the walk back home. Nina’s heart sang within her: a cautious song, it must be said, but a song
nonetheless. She did not want to think of the boyfriend she’d left behind. She did not want to
lose the poetry in living.
Uncle Neal seemed to sense it because he was unusually chatty on the way back. He
pointed out the popcorn bursts of colour as emerging people opened their umbrellas; the sky, as
white as a blank sheet of paper. And Grandma didn’t even scold them when, in front of the
house, Uncle Neal took his niece by the hand.
“What are we doing?” Nina asked, shocked by her uncle’s sudden grin, by the shining
light in his gentle eyes.
“Dancing in the rain,” Uncle Neal called. “We don’t need music! We just need the joy of
being alive! Take the gift and give thanks for it, and hold it in the palm of your hand!”
“Uncle Neal, it’s cold!” Nina protested, but she was beaming, and suddenly fit to burst
with the love she held for the grandmother who was sighing fondly as she tucked her umbrella
away, for the uncle who still called her princess, as he had done since she was born.
“It’s cold!” Nina said again, but she didn’t resist the pull.
“That’s how we know we’re alive, princess,” Uncle Neal shouted, spinning her around.
“That’s how we know!”

Jaslyn’s elementary school teachers were often chagrined to find her reading under her desk in the middle of class, and though she managed to concentrate on her studies in later years, she has always been and will always be a lover of stories. Jaslyn hails from Thailand and Taiwan… and, at present, from the rainy city of Vancouver. These days, she’s often found with her nose in Discworld, Lockwood & Co, Romantic poetry, or some Middle English poem she’s gone over with too much highlighter. You can also find her in her little corner of the world: https://jaslyn.art.blog/

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