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Where I’ll Be

“I can’t believe we have four more weeks of this heat,” said Charles. “I will deny it if you ever repeat it, but I think I would rather be back in the classroom.” He paused at the side of the road looking for a place to cross in the haphazard traffic.

Thomas smiled to himself. His friend had been complaining since the day they arrived. He had learned to take him with a grain of salt. “It’s not hot, it is humid. It is only 82°C.”

“But it is March!”

“True, but it is March in Brazil. The seasons run a little different here than back home,” he said as he grinned. “Can I ask why exactly you tagged along on a subtropical mission trip if you didn’t want to be hot?” Thomas asked, following his roommate across the busy street.

His reply was quick. “Because I need all the checkmarks I can get on that resume. The world is getting real uncertain. Things are getting dicey out there. I need all the help I can get.”

Thomas shook his head as he stopped and gazed at an old store front. “Silly me, thinking you were here to help people.”

“Aww, man, don’t do me like that.” Charles stopped a few feet from where Thomas had paused and looked back at him. “Not all of us got a free ride to the best university in New York on our family’s money,” Charles saw his friend shoot him a quick warning glare. Charles walked back and threw his arm around Thomas. “Sorry man, that was low. I know money isn’t a thing for you.” Charles hesitated, half holding his breath as he searched for a way to fix his harsh comment. “Come on, let’s see if we can catch these cats playing. They play something like jazz meets samba. It will blow your mind.”

Thomas didn’t answer. Instead, he looked back through the window at the café inside and then glanced up to the stone facade above his head where Saborear was carved. As he glanced back down, he saw her. Through the glass, he saw an angel walk across the ornately tiled floor, balancing a cup on a thin saucer as she floated gloriously to a small round table and sat down. He watched her lean over to pull a book from a bag on the floor and sit back up, sweeping her dark curls away from her face with her long fingers.

Not even Charles could break his gaze. “Are you coming?” said Charles as he turned and started walking back down the street.

“Actually, I think I am going to grab some coffee.”

Charles stopped and looked back at him. “Coffee? In this heat?”

“Like I said, it is not that hot. And they say that São Paulo has some of the best coffee in the world,” he started walking toward the antique wooden door. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

“Cool, color me gone,” said Charles, wasting no time heading to the party solo.

Thomas pulled on the heavy door and stepped into the café. It looked like he had traveled back in time. The elaborate ceiling, the gold and iron railings on the chairs and walls, the heavy wooden shelves carved into intricate designs. It was like he had stepped into a royal room, so different from the suffering and noise outside the door he just walked through. He quickly found her, his angel, sitting alone in the corner, reading an intricately bound. She was the most beautiful thing in this room.

He sucked in a deep breath and mustered up the courage to approach. Just a few feet away, he froze, staring, more nervous than he thought. Come on man, you can do this. Why was he so nervous? He had never been nervous in his life. Not when he gave the Valedictorian speech, not when he gave the I-actually-did-read-the-assignment speech when the toughest pre-med professor called him out the first day of class, and not even when he gave the speech at his parent’s funeral. What was it about this girl that suddenly made “hello” the hardest word in the English language?

“Hello?” The gentle voice shifted him back to reality. startled him. He realized she was speaking to him as his eyes locked with hers. It was as if she had read his mind.

“Umm, hi,” said Thomas as he stumbled over even the simplest words.

The angel made the most beautiful sound as she giggled at him. “Would you like to sit down?” she said, looking up at him with the most perfect brown eyes he had ever seen. Her accent was familiar to him. He had heard it often over the last several weeks from the locals he had treated in the makeshift clinics they had set up in the nearby poverty-stricken neighborhoods. “Well?” she asked as she smiled at him.

He stumbled to the chair across from her and sat down, almost tripping on his own shoes. She made that exquisite sound again.

“Do you have a name?” she asked.

“Thomas,” he said, once again frozen. He pushed through it. “My name is Thomas. This will probably sound crazy, but I could not leave this place without knowing who you are.”

“Tourist?” she asked, showing no reaction to his bold and impulsive statement.

He shook his head. “Doctor. Well, almost a doctor. Here on a humanitarian trip before graduation.”

“Well, almost Dr. Thomas,” she said in that magnificent Portuguese accent. “It is wonderful to meet you. I am Juliana,” she said, setting down her book and holding out her hand for his. “You look like you have a life to share. Let me get you a coffee.”

“Perfect,” he said as he reached for her hand, holding it longer than he should. “I love coffee.”

It should have been bizarre, uncomfortable even—talking to this perfect stranger out of the blue. But it felt like the most normal thing in the world. They talked for hours. They talked about their dreams, their families, their plans, and their frustrations. She told him of the culture and troubles of her country and her fears for the future, and he shared the same. They spoke of authors they loved, music they cherished, pains they still hurt from, faith they had explored, and the foods they craved. They talked about their mutual favorites, including their love for coffee. Him, because it got him through med school and her, because of many marvelous reasons. He watched the passion in her eyes as she talked about it.

“People miss such importance in small things like a cup of coffee. One of your presidents in America called it ‘the favorite drink of the civilized world’. It is a commodity the entire world shares in, either by economics or culture. It has changed the world since its inception. For years, people have visited places near and far to meet and converse and share ideas, all around a cup.” She smiled. “In many countries, it replaced beer and wine as the drink of choice for breakfast.”

“Beer for breakfast?” Thomas questioned. “Now that would be interesting,” he said as he laughed.

She went on to describe the whole history of all she knew about their favorite drink, which was a lot more than he expected the average person possibly to know. But Thomas already knew Juliana was no average person. She was wise beyond her years. She was an intellectual match to him in every way, often rising past his level of knowledge. She was brilliant and refined and authentic. And beautiful. So beautiful. He could listen to her talk about anything forever.

An older woman with kind eyes approached their table. She looked at Juliana and smiled. “I really need to start for home,” she said.

“Oh! Yes, of course.” Juliana replied. She lifted her bag and started searching for something. She paused, looked up, and her eyes scanned his face. “I am so sorry, this has been—unexpectedly perfect. But I have to go work now.”

“Off to a business meeting? Some major charity fundraiser?” he teased.

She frowned as she stood slowly. She pulled an apron from her bag and tied it around her waist. She reached for their empty cups on the table, stacking them together, glancing up often at him as if to ask his thoughts.

The realization of what was happening dawned on him. His eyes met hers. “You work here?”

She straightened up, still holding the stack of cups, and paused only a moment. “Yes,” she whispered, and she turned to walk toward the counter.

He hopped up quickly and followed her through the doors, straight into the back of the café with no regards to rules. He reached for her arm as she set the dishes in a sink basin and turned her toward him. They were standing inches apart, but neither cared. “Do you like it? Working here?”

“I do,” she said in a cautious tone. “I love it. I think you heard how passionate I am about the community that can build in these simple places around such a simple thing. I meet amazing people and learn amazing things. In a world with so much darkness, I think we should all have something, some place, some dream that we can savor. No matter what happens in my life, I will always work in a place like this. I will always be where wisdom and miracles can be found. The most amazing things happen here every day.” She held her breath and looked up at him.

He smiled as their eyes met. “Then I will always know where to find you,” he said. He leaned in and impulsively kissed his angel for the first time.

They were inseparable. They knew the time would go quickly, so they lived the life she had described. They savored. They learned. They talked. They reveled in the wisdom and culture of the café and its visitors. Each day, he headed straight there after his work was done and they shared the events of their lives while she worked. Sometimes he worked beside her just to be close to her. At the end of three weeks, he knew. He knew he would marry Juliana.

“I have to tell her,” he said to Charles as they ushered the final patient from the tent.

“Man, are you sure about this? You have only known her a few days.”

“Three weeks,” corrected Thomas. “And it doesn’t matter. I feel like I have known her my whole life. I don’t know how. But she has become my best friend. All I know is I can’t live without her.”

Charles closed the last cabinet up and locked it, throwing the keys to Thomas. “Well, I know I have never seen you act so stupid, so it must be something to it. You do you, man. When’s the wedding?”

“Well, I guess I need a ring, huh? Want to help me find one? There is a jewelry store between here and the café.”

“Why not,” said Charles. “Let’s go buy your coffee chick a ring.”

They finished cleaning up and walked to town, planning like two schoolgirls. They laughed at the craziness of it all and Thomas grew more and more excited the closer to town they got. Suddenly, a car came racing up behind them and slammed on its brakes, throwing dust everywhere.

“Hey! Get in!” a man shouted at them, throwing open the car door. It was their director and liaison, Robert. Something was wrong.

“What is going on?” shouted Thomas as he crawled into the car. The car took off before Charles could close the door. The tires spun as they headed back the way they had come. “Wait! What is happening? Town is the other way!”

Robert looked terrified. He never looked terrified. “We aren’t going back to town. There is a plane waiting for us. We have to get out. There has been a coup by the military. We are not safe here. If we don’t get out now, we are dead.”

The reality of Robert’s words began to sink in. “Wait, no! Stop! You have to go back. I have to get Juliana!”

“Thomas, we can’t. We have to go. I am sorry. I am so sorry.” Thomas could see in his eyes that he meant it. He could also see the fear. Five minutes later, he looked back once, boarding a plane in the middle of a field as he heard gunshots in the distance. The tears started to fall.

And they fell for years.

He had tried to get back to her. He wrote letters with no idea if they made it past the border. He watched international news every day of his residency. Twenty-one years later, when the militant government that took over a country and his heart finally collapsed, he was one of the first back in. He volunteered for every transfer throughout the country, spending his day healing and his nights searching every coffee shop and café for her. He prayed that her words were true, that she would always be where wisdom and miracles could be found. He found many miracles and much wisdom, but he never found Juliana.

Yet she had been right. The one thing he learned during his search for her was he had everything still to learn. His travels brought him into the most amazing conversations and occasionally took him out of his misery. Every cup he drank in honor of her, wherever she was. The coffee she loved was as close as he could get to her now. Finally, he knew he had to make a decision. He knew it was time to stop looking.

Forty years later, an exhausted Thomas hailed a cab, aching after the long flight from LA. It was good to be back in New York, even if only for an award and a retirement dinner. The lack of sleep this week was getting to him. He had done many things in his sixty years, but sleeping well wasn’t one of them. For years he laid alone in that bed staring at the ceiling. There had been nothing more. Not since her.

He stepped out and grabbed his bags, pulling out his wallet and tipping the cabby heavy as he always did. You never know when someone was in need of something. He walked into the lavish foyer of the hospital and spotted the sign for coffee. Nostalgia took over. Yes, that was exactly what he needed. Maybe a little pick-me-up would do the trick. He walked inside, up to the empty counter, and glanced at the menu. Just as he called out to see if anyone was there, he panicked. Oh no, he thought, feeling his pocket. Where is my wallet? It was just here! Thomas set his bags on the floor and squatted down to search them.

“Can I help you, sir?” he heard a woman ask.

“I just need a large, or what do they call it now, a venti or something?” he said as he continued looking for his wallet, finally finding it in a side pocket. “Is the coffee good here? I have traveled all night and I really could use something amazing,” he said as he stood up.

Their eyes met. “Yes,” Juliana said. “The coffee is amazing. Just like the things that happen here every day.”

They both stared for a moment that felt like forever. He realized she was real. This was real. He rushed to her at the same time as she came around the counter. He held her tight as the tears fell. “I looked for you,” he cried. “I looked in every coffee shop all over Brazil.”

She buried her face into his shoulder, crying. “I looked for you. I looked for you in every hospital coffee shop in New York.”

“Where wisdom and miracles could be found,” said Thomas, remembering her words.

“Yes,” she said, looking up at him through her tears.

“I have a life to share, Juliana,” said Thomas.

Juliana smiled. “Well, then, let me get you a coffee.”

From History to Heart

  • This story is a perfect representation of the ability of love to survive, even when the world around us is chaos. Its timeline and setting cover some of the most tumultuous times in history. This love story begins in March 1964 in a tiny, forgotten coffee shop in São Paulo, Brazil. There, in a poor neighborhood of urban streets, sitting in the middle of a plateau of the Brazilian Highlands, Thomas finds peace amid the turmoil.

    The world was in a tailspin of change. Only months out from the assassination of JFK, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War are in full swing. Americans are following news stories about Jimmy Hoffa, Malcom X, the first Ford Mustang, and Alaskan earthquakes. Beatlemania and Ali are trumping the airwaves, drowning out the battles and protests that stretched from Sasebo to Cyprus.

    USAID was just beginning to provide humanitarian medical aid to many areas, including Brazil, solidifying the intent of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Medical missions were still an uncommon concept outside of religious missionary organizations but were now increasing due to the availability of transatlantic flights. I am not sure if medical students would have been part of a USAID effort in 1964, but I know it would have been unlikely that colleges like Colombia or New York Medical School were yet sending students abroad. For this instance, the source of the main character’s placement in the coffee capital of the world is not as important as the rarity of the occurrence itself.

    Surrounded by an unsure world full of poverty and pain, it is no wonder that Thomas found unexpected joy under the sign that, when translated from Portuguese to English, meant “savor.” It seemed the whole world was searching for a moment to enjoy, a moment of beauty to hold the attention of hearts heavy with negativity and despair. Thomas found it . . . and then it was gone.

    Just like that, on March 31st, 1964, she is gone. It was a Tuesday in the rapidly growing city of São Paulo, the same Tuesday that would begin the Brazilian coup d’état, replacing the left-wing 24th president of Brazil, João Belchior Marques Goulart a.k.a. “Jango,” with the military dictatorship of the U.S.-backed Fifth Brazilian Republic. Medical missionaries would have had to evacuate to avoid being caught up in the middle of the conflict. In our story, that moment was the last time he ever thought he would see her. Thank goodness, despite a world turning upside down, he was wrong.

  • Sources include: Chronicle of the 20th Century by Jacques Legrand, The Century by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster, Columbia.edu, Brown.edu, Britannica.com, Medsend.org, Medicalmissions.com, USAID.gov.

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Shannon Leach is a slice-of-life encouragement writer and the owner of A Repurposed Heart and ARH Inspirations. Her authentic stories and books about leadership, life, and loving people focus on encouraging others and reminding them they are not alone. Her work can also be found in Guideposts and multiple Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and is the co-founder of the nonprofit The Fostered Gift.

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