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I Like Complicated

By Emma Woodhead

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"Now, I’m not going to deny that I was aware of your beauty. But the point is, this has nothing to do with your beauty. As I got to know you, I began to realize that beauty was the least of your qualities. I became fascinated by your goodness. I was drawn in by it. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. And it was only when I began to feel actual physical pain every time you left the room that it finally dawned on me: I was in love, for the first time in my life. I knew it was hopeless, but that didn’t matter to me. And it’s not that I want to have you. All I want is to deserve you. Tell me what to do. Show me how to behave. I’ll do anything you say."

~Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses

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“Word of advice,” the barista whispered to Vinh. “Stay clear of the man upstairs.”

“The guy who works in the book section?” Vinh replied as he started to grind the coffee beans. It was his first day, and he was already being told who to avoid. It didn’t seem like a good sign.

The man had been ecstatic to work at the cafe. On the bottom floor was the lovely coffee shop, but once one went up the spiral staircase, the second floor was filled with books for people to explore.

The barista nodded and didn’t award Vinh any more information as she went to help the first customers of the day.

Vinh found himself glancing up at the balcony of the second floor, but he didn’t see anything other than the bookshelves. He would be lying if he said the curiosity didn’t pique his interest and the need to know about this mystery, man. When it came time for his break, he found himself going straight to the spiral staircase and trying his best to be quiet on his accession.

The second floor was quiet and empty of people. Vinh’s feet creaked the floorboards as he walked. The atmosphere was so much different than the one downstairs. The air was heavy. It was almost uncomfortable.

“Can I help you with something?” a voice asked. Vinh turned around, expecting to come face to face with an old and nasty man. That was the image in his mind, but instead, he was looking at someone his age. A tall and rather handsome man who was young but indeed didn’t seem to have the glee of youth. He held a few books in his hands as he walked past Vinh to head to one of the shelves. He didn’t even pay Vinh an ounce of attention.

“I’m just looking,” Vinh replied.

“Like everyone else who comes up here for the ambiance before going back down to sip their espressos and cappuccinos.”

“Not a fan of the customers, I’m guessing,” Vinh said as he followed the man through the isles.

“I’m not here to meet the needs of someone’s aesthetics or to stacks my books a certain way for Instagram pictures. Reading is a dying art. The only people who do it are those who don’t have enough friends to distract them or are searching for something that they are incapable of finding on their own,” the bookkeeper said.

“And which one are you?”

“None of your business,” he replied, looking at Vinh for the first time. “Don’t you have a coffee to go make for a hipster?”

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Vinh spent the next couple of days trying his best to learn about the man on the second floor. He knew the man’s name was Jensen and that he went to school at the same University as Vinh, but it seems they have never crossed paths before now. That made sense. They didn’t seem to have much in common aside from working here.

Every once in a while, Vinh would catch Jensen at the balcony, passing by with a book in his hand to stack or just glancing down at the people in the cafe. Vinh found the closed-off man to be rather interesting. His father was a prosperous businessman, yet he was working dusk to dawn stacking books for minimum wage. He was here before Vinh arrived in the morning shifts, and if Vinh worked the late ones, Jensen was always there to close the store.

But tonight would be different. Vinh waited for Jensen to come downstairs from the second floor. “What are you still doing here?” Jensen asked as he walked over to the coat rack. Grabbing his coat and scarf before turning back to Vinh. “I didn’t think you wanted to see me so badly. You could have just walked up the stairs to pay me a visit.”

“You don’t seem happy when people are upstairs.”

“I am only happy when I think someone is worthy of being in the company of such great literature.”

“How do you know when someone is worthy of being up there?”

“It starts when someone doesn’t stop for coffee before coming upstairs to pass the time as they wait.”

“You said the other day reading is a dying art. Why do you think that?”

“Everything dies. Just some slower than others. I’m just trying to keep the lights on to revive what is left.”

“You can still die when the sun is shining.”

Jensen let out a small chuckle as he wrapped his scarf around his neck. “Quoting James Joyce isn’t going to make me sleep with you, Vinh,” he teased with a cheeky smile. “Being you’re still here, you can lock up. I'll see you tomorrow.”

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Vinh and Jensen didn’t speak again for the next couple of days. Mainly because the two of them stayed on their respected floors. It wasn’t awkward; it was just merely that Vinh had the feeling he wasn’t welcomed on the second floor. He was disappointed, but what did he expect from Jensen? If the man was anything like his parents, his higher than thou attitude was not an apple that fell far from the tree.

Vinh, one day, was walking home late. He passed by the store and noticed the second-floor lights on. Finding it odd, he walked across the street to the shop, unlocking the door and then stepping inside.

“Jensen!” he called, knowing that it was only ever him that ventured to the top floor. Vinh didn’t hear a response, and he walked upstairs. He searched through the isle of bookshelves until he came across Jensen.

The man was laying on his back, holding a book up to read with one hand, and in the other was a half-smoked cigarette. Next to him laid an ashtray with the ends of about half a dozen cigarettes already smushed down and extinguished.

“What are you doing here,” Jensen asked, still keeping his eyes on the book. “It’s past closing time.”

“I could be asking you the same thing.” Vinh walked over and sat down next to Jensen, leaning back against the self. “Smoking can kill you.”

“What a shame.” The man flipped the page in his book before taking a drag of his cigarette. Deciding that he was done with it, he placed it among the other dead cigarettes before reaching for another, his eyes never leaving the book. He put the new cigarette on his lips before grabbing his lighter and lighting the end of it. All of this while still reading the book.

“Why do you smoke?” Vinh soon asked, and he laid down next to Jensen to finally see what the book was as Jensen flipped the page.

“It’s complicated.”

“I like complicated.”

“No, you don’t. No one likes complicated.”

“I like complicated. What I don’t like is kissing men who have tobacco on their lips.”

Jensen’s eyes left his book as he turned his head to face Vinh. “What makes you think I want to kiss you?” He asked as he laid his book down on his chest, for the first time giving Vinh his undivided attention.

“You’re an easy person to read,” Vinh said as he then sat up and then went to his feet, looking down at Jensen.

Jensen looked up at Vinh with a smirk on his face; shaking his head, he opened his book again to read. “You’re a strange man, Mr. Pham.”

“I’ll see you at work tomorrow,” Vinh replied leaving, the conversation at that before going down the stairs. “Don’t cause any trouble while I’m gone.”

Jensen just chuckled at the man. “No promises,” he said, but only loud enough for himself to hear as Vinh was already downstairs. He found Vinh to be amusing, to say the least.

His eyes went back to his book as the cigarette still rested between his fingers. But it didn’t return to his lips.

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Author's note- Thank you for reading this story. Jensen is my character but Vinh is a character created by my good friend Mai. This was a story I had written for our two character and got the permission from her to share it.

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