What is this? I have no idea. This is the first draft of a thing that I started writing, and I’m not quite sure where it was going, so I figured I would post Draft One here, for accountability. The idea was to take Star’s Hollow and You’ve Got Mail on the Upper West Side and bring it to Lipa.
Even from here I can see the many ways this draft can still change, how Sari and Gabriel will be different, but for now, we write. Will take it down, maybe if I finish this! We’ll see. I would love to know your thoughts too!
Baker Boy, Latte Girl
Sari Tomas loved her pre-school science classes. It had fascinated her that there were names for the sensations she felt when she was around food—smell, sight, touch, sound, taste. Five senses working together to create one experience, separate and yet all together. Cupcakes weren’t just cupcakes, they were soft, they smelled like vanilla and possibility, they came with a happy birthday song. Mais con hielo came cold with crushed ice and milk, with little bursts of sweetness from the corn.
To Sari, her exploration of food was a scientific endeavour, and she was the intrepid explorer, making her way to the pinnacle of food and taste. Later on, science classes would get way more technical, and she lost interest in all of that (she had been spectacularly bad at chemistry, go figure), but she still liked to eat. She could still break any experience down into those five senses. Smell, sight, touch, sound, taste. In fact, it was one of the reasons she was able to do the work she did.
But ever since the bakery opened next door, all those five senses had gone into overdrive. Rosaline’s Bakery looked innocent enough from outside, all white subway tile, neon letters and a bright pink wall that should have looked out of place in the Laneways, but fit perfectly. But inside, oooh. Inside was a den of jewelled delights waiting for Sari, tempting her to taste them. She knew better, of course. She’d seen the first two Mummy movies well enough to know that you don’t just take jewels all willy nilly. But the baked goods continued to tempt her, tuning her senses to locate them before they came too close. She could smell a baked good from a mile away (which was a useless expression to those who measured things in meters, as they did).
“You’re exaggerating,” her older brother Raymond, fresh off of his one hour drive from Manila to Batangas, said as he followed her behind the counter. “And a little obsessed.”
Sari was, as always, busy. There was always something to do, even in a thirty square meter space like hers. Like right now, she was wiping down the countertops, checking the temperature in their pastry case, making sure that the gleam on their coffee machine was pristine. It was a gorgeous thing in robin’s egg blue, something Sari had insisted on when she opened the Sinta Cafe.
“When have I ever exaggerated, brother, dear?” Sari asked, brushing past him as she piled more paper cups into the dispenser. The cafe thrived on takeout orders, people coming in for a cup before leaving to continue walking around the narrow alleys of the Laneways.
“I have to admit, it’s not like you,” Ray said, taking a cookie from the pastry case with a pair of tongs and taking a bite. “Eugh. This is awful.”
Sari ignored the little dig on her food, honestly she was fine with it. She didn’t open the Cafe for the food, there were plenty of other establishments on the Laneways for that. No. She was here to dispense legally allowable stimulants in proper dosages, sometimes with milk. She was, in short, a coffee peddler, and she was happy with that.
“Then stop stealing from me,” she rolled her eyes. “Do you want coffee?”
“Always,” Ray retrieved a piece of tissue paper and lay the rest of the cookie on it.
“How about you tell me why you came here while I make your coffee?”
“Can’t a brother drive hundreds of kilometres just to see his favorite sister?”
“I’ll tell Sam you said that,” Sari chuckled. “And I know for a fact that driving here takes as much time as you driving from work to the house, with the traffic and all. This isn’t hard for you,” she said, waving her hands around the shop like she was trying to encompass the entire space. “Cafe mocha, right?”
Sari knew her bother’s coffee order and could make it in her sleep—Ray might call it a cafe mocha, but Sari thought his preference was much closer to a Vietnamese coffee flavored with chocolate syrup instead of condensed milk. She’d gotten the coffee from the grinder, but then it happened. The bell to the shop rang, a bright, tinkling sound that cut through the moment of silence while Sari got her accoutrements ready to make Ray his coffee. She heard her staff politely greet the customer as she came up to the counter, heard the crinkling of a paper bag as she studied the menu. Sari didn’t have to ask, she knew where that paper bag came from, knew that there was some sinful little treat inside.
The customer opened the bag, as if to check that whatever she purchased was still inside. Sari inhaled.
Her head shot up from where she was standing behind the espresso machine. The scene had been subtle, but it came to her nonetheless, like a disturbance in the Force. Sugar always lingered in the air like this, the same way it lingered in your mouth when it was too much. But this wasn’t too much. Even with the chocolate and the banana, it was just enough. Enough to punch through the delicate, floral smells of the coffee and make her look up.
She took a deep breath, unsure if it was because she was trying to steel herself, or because she wanted more of that lovely, blissful smell.
The customer smiled, and ordered an iced Americano. Because she was already behind the counter, Sari nodded at Mari behind the counter and started to work on the order, working on Ray’s right after. She was dousing Ray’s coffee with mocha when she heard the sound. The machine was quiet, and there wasn’t really any other sound, so when it happened, it was clear as a bell.
Really, this was getting ridiculous. Rosaline’s bakery had been open for two weeks. She didn’t have a count of how many people had come in holding Rosaline’s goodies, but she’d smelled them all, heard the way they snapped or crumbled, exactly how they should.
“Iced Americano for Hazel,” she called a little too loudly, placing the ceramic mug with her logo on the serving counter. She wanted to fight baked goods with coffee, even if it was all in her head.
The customer looked a little dazed as she looked up, and Sari could see the crumbs she brushed off her skirt. Tiny, innocent little things that were now on her territory.
“What is that?” Sari asked her, a little more sharply than she intended. She saw her brother cover his mouth with a hand, muffling a laugh. “In the box?”
“Double chip cookies,” the customer said hesitantly, clearly confused. “Banana chip and chocolate chip. They’re from the bakery next door.”
She inhaled deeply and then let it go in a huff.
“Of course they are,” she grumbled, and turned her head to the wall she shared with Rosaline’s glaring at it like it was going to crumble if she glared hard enough. She certainly endeavoured to try. To her customer, or to anyone else who looked at her, really, it may have looked like she was seething, and she was, just a tiny bit.
“Uh, can I have my coffee to go instead?” her customer asked, edging slowly away from the counter. Sari opened her mouth to acquiesce to the request when someone else’s hand wrapped around the cup of iced Americano and deftly transferred the contents into one of her robin’s egg blue cups.
Then with a little smile, Ray handed the customer her coffee and wished her a great day as she smiled back, took the cookie, and took its scent away with her.
Sari felt her shoulders drop, and she hated that they did. She was supposed to be better than this. Reformed sugar lovers shouldn’t be so excited over baked goods that weren’t even hers to begin with.
You would think, she told herself. That after not touching carbs or sugar for two years, I would be immune. Stupid bakery.
“You know,” Ray said, and already Sari knew that her brother was going to be annoying about this. Not in the least because he was rubbing his chin. “I wondered why nobody seemed to like hanging out in your cafe. I thought it was the bad snacks, but…I was wrong.”
“Shut up,” Sari grumbled, shoving her brother’s coffee into his hand before she grabbed a tray and started to load it with mugs and a little jug of fresh milk they bought exclusively from the farm ten minutes from the Laneways. It was one of the reasons why Sari had loved the idea of opening her cafe here, where she had access to fresh, local ingredients without having to think about the logistical nightmare it would have been if she were in Manila. “And I do really well on my takeout orders, thanks. I have to go upstairs and prep for class.”
“Need help with that?”
“I have to tell you why I came here,” Ray said, his voice suddenly serious as he followed her up the stairs to Sari’s coffee lab/office. Juggling a tray of coffee mugs and milk, Sari managed to open the door herself and let them both in.
A rush of cool air greeted them as they entered. Everything a coffee master needed was here—a tabletop coffee roaster for her bring out delicious flavors from the beans, where she worked out how to make the tricky, tougher robusta bean into something that blended perfectly with the lighter arabica. There was a wide assortment of manual coffee makers, gleaming and waiting for her to use and play with. The whole space only smelled slightly of coffee, just a barest hint of the many flavors Sari had been able to pull here. There was a sink for cleanup, a tiny office, and a daybed by the window, her favorite spot, with bookshelves stuffed to the brim with books.
But all of this was eclipsed by setup in the middle of the room. There was the grinder, ready and waiting with today’s blend—the Rosabaya Robusta, which she developed for a friend’s retreat house, perfect for today’s basic barista class. A single group machine bright and gleaming in the middle of the room, still in that bright blue she loved, with red letters showing off its fancy Italian name.
With practiced hands, Sari flipped switches, and the station came to life. The perfectly roasted beans were ground into her waiting receiver, and Sari started to move through the motions that every barista knew within their soul. It was a dance she could lose herself in easily, fuelled by knowing exactly what came next, when to turn, when to wait, when to hum. This, she couldn’t mess up. This, she knew.
Deep liquid gold poured from the spout and into the espresso glass waiting below. Grabbing one of the now warm mugs that she’d placed top down on the machine, Sari poured her newly extracted espresso into it, taking a quick sniff of the Rosabaya’s fruity notes, the way the addition of their family’s fine robusta beans punched through. Arabica snobs would scoff at the Tomas family’s dedication to bring fine robusta beans and blends to the masses, but they had been in business for the last thirty years, so they were doing just fine.
Sari added milk to the little silver jug and plunged it to the steamer, letting hot steam rise from the jug like a witch’s brew. Then she poured the frothed milk into her mug, tilting, swirling, coaxing until she had a pretty tulip pattern in milk and foam.
Behind her, Ray snorted.
“Show-off,” he crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned against the countertop.
“Not my fault you never learned,” Sari pointed out. But this was the agreement the siblings had forged very early on, when Sari needed it. Ray, the oldest, was in charge of the business side of things, the operations, the marketing, the…other things (Sari honestly had no idea). Sam, the youngest, always the wild one, was in charge of the coffee trees. It was a perfect system, and the siblings got jealous of each other for it.
“Can we talk now?”
“Hmmmm?” She innocently asked him over her cup of coffee.
“Sari,” Ray said, his patience being tested. “We have to—“
Whatever else he had to say was immediately cut off by music. Loud music, the kind that was belted out by neighbors on karaoke machines for the weekend. Sari knew this song, too. Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen. Classic, but not her favorite. She raised her eyes over to the window that connected her coffee lab to the bakery next door (a quirk of the old warehouses, these second floors were offices). It was a large bakery, with fancy counters and a whole cabinet of sprinkles that was just calling to her.
But that wasn’t the reason why she was so suddenly distracted. It was the guy inside. He was dancing and singing (quite badly, she liked to think) along with the tune, throwing his head back, even if the effect was lost with all of his dark hair tied back in a ponytail. He shimmied his hips as he moved around the kitchen, dancing to the song, singing badly. It took Sari a moment to realize that he was actually…baking.
A stick of butter and a heap of sugar went into the mixer. Then he added flour and smoke billowed out of the bowl, like a witch’s cauldron. Double, double, this guy is trouble.
And the perfect excuse to leave the room.
“Be right back,” Sari said suddenly, putting her coffee down to make her way to the fire exit before Ray could say anything more. It was silly, of course. Her brother could just open the door behind her and continue talking to her in the fire escape, but Sari knew that he knew an escape attempt when she took it. And she was already here, so she might as well.
So, with Freddy Mercury encouraging her, she raised her hand and knocked on the bakery’s fire exit door. The music played on. She knocked again. She was just about to talk herself out of this, accept whatever Ray wanted to say on her side of the door when it opened, and her neighbor’s face peered at her through the opening.
Sari wasn’t ready. But how could someone ever be ready for a face like his? Her neighbor was all sharp angles and handsome features, warm brown eyes and bee stung lips. His dark hair was pulled back and away from his face, and it made him look like he belonged on a crew of a ship in the middle of the open sea, pillaging and plundering, instead of being covered in baking ingredients. His smile was kind, and it lit up Sari’s entire world.
“Hi,” he yelled over the music like people knocked on his fire escape every day, and suddenly the entire world resumed its regular course, and music blasted from inside the kitchen. Sari hadn’t even been aware that it had stopped. “Can I help you?”
Why was she here again?
“Hi,” she managed to yell back. “I’m Sari Tomas. I own the Sinta Cafe next door.”
“I know!” He said like it was the most brilliant thing that he’d ever heard in his entire life, like Sari being next door to him actually meant something. He was…happy about it, Sari guessed. Because obviously, nothing went better with baked goods than specialty coffee. “Do you like Queen?”
“Yes!” Sari exclaimed, and she did, actually. She especially loved it that one year in high school where she cut off all her hair, donned the sando, the white pants and the moustache for a Halloween party. She was nothing if not dedicated. “But we have a connecting window that isn’t soundproof, and I have a training class later, so I was hoping you could—“
“Can I interest you in a dalandan muffin?”
“Well, not dalandan, it’s actually sinturis, the local variety that grows on these trees in the Blossoms Farm in Bolbok. They harvested yesterday, and they gave me a basket since I just moved in. I’m still tweaking the recipe, so it’s not going to be perfect, but anyway, muffin?”
He looked at her like he was fully expecting her to leap into his arms and say yes. And really, who would say no to a free muffin? It would go perfectly with the sweet jammy notes of the coffee already waiting for her in the lab.
But no. Sari would remain strong.
“No thanks!” she said a little too chirpily. “But the music? And our window?”
Oh, she was calling it *our* window now?
“Yeah, I was wondering about that too,” he rubbed at the beard growing on his chin, turning to their common wall. “Why is there a window?”
“We share the same warehouse,” Sari explained, unsure of why she was explaining all of this to him. Surely this was one of the reasons why he rented a space in the Laneways in the first place? Because it was cool, because it was a great use of old space, because it was a tourist destination? “This is an old garage with an office, which is why we have second floors, the owners just cut everything up into rentable retail spaces.”
“Aaah, the Luzes, right?” He asked. “Everyone keeps telling me they’re like a Big Deal here. Kira Luz was actually the one who helped get me this space, we were classmates in high school. Have you met her?”
“We grew up together,” Sari shrugged, and she should know, because the Tomases were here since the Spanish brought coffee trees to the land. Legacies like hers were rooted in the land, and Sari had thought more than once that it was her legacy that saved her. “But anyway, the music?”
“Music!” Sari made a gesture like she was either turning down the music volume on a car radio (you know, the kind that still had knobs) or she was trying to get him to come closer in the weirdest way possible.
“You sure you don’t want my muffins?” He asked, and it was slow and deliberate and really, really frustrating. He came closer when he turned to lower the volume of the music, and Sari could just smell the sweetness of him, the little bit of sourness from the sinturis that he must have been hand-squeezing. It was a heady, intoxicating smell, mixing in with the coffee still lingering in her own clothes. This was Sari’s catnip, and it was right in front of her.
She knew getting this guy’s muffins was a bad idea.
“My mother taught me not to take baked goods from strangers,” she managed to say without fluttering her eyelashes.
“Lucky I’m not a stranger, then. Gabriel Capras,” he said, holding out a hand for her to shake. It had sugar on it. Un-fair. “I…I own this bakery.”
Did she just imagine that little catch in his voice when he said that? If she hadn’t, then fe covered it up quickly, picking up something she couldn’t see, which turned out to be a steaming mug of coffee that he raised to his lips. Sari couldn’t help it—her nose wrinkled.
“Is that…3 in 1?” She couldn’t help but ask, indicating the mug. Yes, her voice had a tone. She was totally aware that the instant three in one mixes were popular, easy and sugary sweet. But why have that when she was right next door?
I smell a hypocrite, Sari heard her brother’s voice dancing in her ear.
“Yes it is,” Gabriel said, lifting his mug. “You sure you don’t want a sinturis muffin?”
“No,” Sari said decisively, finally, after being asked only three or four times. “I’m on a diet. No carbs, no sugar, no muffin.”
Now she was sure she was imagining the way his shoulders dropped. “Why are you on a diet, though? Your body is gorgeous.”
He said that like it was a fact. The sky is blue, grass is green and your body is gorgeous. Had anyone ever said that about her? Sari didn’t really want to think about it at the moment. Between this and her brother waiting for her in the coffee lab, she realized that she was having one of those days when nothing made sense.
“It’s gorgeous because I haven’t touched a carb in two years,” was the least caustic of the replies she’d come up with. “Anyway, I’m going back to my lab. Try to keep the music down?”
“Only if you can resist dancing to it,” Gabriel smiled again. “I saw you earlier.”
Her cheeks burned hot, and she knew from experience that Gabriel could see it. So she sometimes danced along to a beat when she was making coffee? It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen Gabriel do the exact same thing before she came here.
“You sure I can’t tempt you, Sari Tomas?”
As if he was taking on a dare.
“How about a date, then?”
Now, Sari knew when she was being teased. She had an older brother, after all, and this was definitely a teasing.
“Music down. No muffins. And drink better coffee, seriously,” she summarized, exiting the fire escape and headed back to the safety of the coffee house, where Ray had patiently waited for her.
Out of the fire and into the frying pan, or something like that.
“Why are you still here?” Sari huffed irritably, making a beeline for her abandoned coffee cup, the foam now dissolved and turning it into a sad, cold mess. But, she didn’t waste things, so with a few motions, a bit of tinkering and a gigantic pour, she was now drinking an iced latte.
“Three things,” Ray said, because he always liked to break things down like this. Business and efficiency, that was the mark of a Tomas. Press it all down and keep working was practically the family motto. “One, Lola is looking for you.”
“She’s always looking for me, and she knows she can come here to talk to me,” Sari frowned, her standard response to her grandmother’s weekly request. It was almost perfunctory now for her to ask, for Sari to ask her to come, but her mother never did. “This is her province more than mine.”
“And Manila is more your home than hers,” he said, and it was like having a knife twist in her chest when Ray told her that. “You can’t avoid the capital forever.”
It sounded like something out of a dystopian novel, but Sari knew it was the truth. Everything was in Manila, it seemed, their business, her family, better selections at malls. Lipa wasn’t the most provincial of places, really, not since all the major mall franchises were coming in at an alarmingly fast rate. They even had Starbucks and The Coffee Bean here now, which was a huge thing to the Barako-till-I-die crowd. But still, it wasn’t Manila. Why did everything have to be in Manila?
“You know why I have no plans to go to Manila anytime soon,” she reminded her brother, shaking her mug so the ice cooled the drink even faster. “It’ll be like putting my tail between my legs and admitting that I’m not fine.”
“Why? You have this fantastic place, we have people knocking down our door for you to grace them with your knack for flavor, and people are flocking to the Sinta Cafe from all over, even if it’s mostly for takeout because your food sucks—“
She threw a coffee bean at him.
“So why are you so scared?”
“I’m just not ready yet, okay? Please don’t tell me how to feel. And don’t pretend it suddenly matters to you.”
“Okay,” much to Ray’s credit, and one of the reasons why Sari liked when he came to see her, he didn’t push. “Okay. I really don’t mind driving up here to see you, you know. And Sampy is here every week.”
“I know,” Sari finished her coffee and started to clean up, pointedly avoiding her brother’s gaze. “You said there were three things you wanted to talk about?”
“The second thing is about the Carlton Hotel. They got the Lounge Blend you made for them.”
Sari inhaled, and she knew exactly what blend Ray was talking about. Part of her job was to come up with bespoke coffee blends for clients who ask for it, and theirs was popular because Sari always insisted on using their family’s fine robusta beans in the blend.
She knew the Carlton’s Lounge Blend like the back of her hand—Brazilian beans, roasted just enough to bring out the grapefruit notes, blended with their farm’s fine robusta, fruity sweet and strong, reflecting the flavors of the earth it was planted on. Sam had been experimenting with inter-planting their coffee trees with banana, creating a batch of beans with a subtle banana flavor. Sari thought it would be perfect for the upper class high street clientele of the Carlton Hotel. It would also be perfect with the cookie that customer brought in earlier, the Banana chip one. Ugh.
“Did they like it?” she asked, her shoulders suddenly tense because, oh god, what if they didn’t?
Ray shot her a wry look, like he couldn’t believe she was still asking him.
“Oh they did,” he said, twirling a pen in his hand. Where he’d gotten that pen, Sari had no idea. “In fact, they liked it so much, it leads me to the third thing, and the real reason why I came.”
Sari tensed, waiting.
“The Carlton people loved it so much that they want to do a whole launch for the blend,” Ray continued, all smooth and suave, even if Sari knew that he knew her answer before he even asked. “They want to do an exclusive cupping session with you, make you the face of the brand. If we do that, they’ll buy our original Sinta blend for their lounge, with the possibility of expanding to their other hotels in the Philippines.”
The breath Sari inhaled was so sharp that she actually staggered backwards, swallowing uncomfortably.
“No! I’m not a celebrity endorser, Ray, that’s you. You can do the private session, say all the right things.”
“They don’t want some guy with good hair and a business suit, they want someone who knows her shit, and that’s you, kiddo,” he argued without flinching at Sari’s immediate reaction.
“No,” Sari moved farther from her brother, looking for other things to do. Surely, there were other things she could do rather than listen to this? “I already said I don’t want to go back to Manila. Especially not for an event where I’m going to be in front of a crowd. Say no.”
Ray cleared his throat, and this time, Sari actually turned to face him. There was no point in seething at someone when you weren’t looking at them right in the eye, and Sari was a master of seething, especially when it came to Raymundo Tomas being extra stupid.
“You mother fucking asshole. You said yes!” Sari threw another coffee bean at him, aimed precisely at his forehead. “I have *grinders* here in my lab, Ray. Industrial grade grinders to pulverise your sorry ass into powder so fine nobody will ever know.”
“If you grind me up, there will be blood everywhere, and your coffee will taste like bleach for weeks,” Ray pointed out, even as Sari shot him the dirtiest Evil Eye she could muster at the moment. “We need the publicity. The Farm is doing well, but nobody knows we’re out here. People in Manila think we grow and make strong, acidic Barako, which they don’t like, and the people here in Batangas think we’re growing Arabica, which they think betrays our heritage. And while I think the Sinta Cafe is a great way to show off our coffee beans—we still need to get out there and tell them what we’re about.”
She opened her mouth to protest, mostly because she already knew that Ray was about to bring out his secret weapon, the one thing that would get her to agree, even if she didn’t want to.
“Mom and Dad dreamed of reviving Lipa’s old coffee glory,” Ray reminded her. “And we can do it, the three of us. Me with the business side, you with the blends and Sampaguita with the coffee beans. That’s why you have to go to the Carlton, smile for the cameras and talk about how good Batangas coffee beans can be.”
She had no escape. It was her legacy, after all.
All their lives, they had been told, ‘one day, one day all of this would be yours.’ The Tomas Farms had been growing and supplying the country with Batangas barako beans for the last fifty years, and one day, it would belong to Sari, Raymundo and Sampaguita.
Well, after the Big Blow Up two years ago, ‘one day’ was suddenly ‘right now,’ and giving up was never in the siblings’ vocabulary. It had been a huge scramble in the first year, trying to take reins on a speeding carriage that was heading straight into a cliff, just managing to get it to safer ground. If Ray said they needed this, then they really needed this.
Sari tried to breathe away the flames of fear that were trying to lick her toes. Tried to remind herself that there was nothing to be afraid of. Manila was a big city, and she deserved a place in it as much as anyone else.
“When is it?” she asked, and she hated that her voice sounded so small.
“Son of a mother fucker.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not,” Sari sighed, because they both knew perfectly well that he really wasn’t. But the truth was, Sari didn’t hate him. She hated herself. For being weak, for being scared, no matter what other people tell her. “Okay. Okay.”
“They’re not going to show up,” Ray said gently. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“Of course they’re going to show up,” Sari snorted. “They always do.”
“I love you,” he said, because it needed to be said. Then he wrapped an arm around his sister and squeezed tight. Sari used to believed that hugs had the power to make anything instantly better, a belief she shared with her siblings. But right now, even she could tell that Ray’s heart wasn’t quite in it.
“Love you too,” She snorted. “Are you staying for dinner?”
“No,” Ray said, stepping back. “I actually have to leave now if I want to avoid the traffic. I’ll send you the details, and you can call me anytime. Unless you’re backing out.”
“I already said yes, don’t test me,” Sari grumbled, and Ray gave her one last squeeze before he headed for the door, closing it behind him.
Once he was gone, Sari wanted to drop her head on the countertop and not get up. She was so frustrated and annoyed that she didn’t even bother to look up when ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ started to blare through her and Gabriel Capras’ common window. She’d almost forgotten that she’d met him today.
She turned her face toward the window and saw him standing there, giving her a small wave.
‘You ok?’ he mouthed to her, even if they both knew that if he shouted loud enough, she could hear. Sari gave him a thumbs up.
‘Date?’ he mouthed, it was all Sari could do to just roll her eyes and leave the coffee lab.