In Which the Coffee Runs Dry
“How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls.” - William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
“Large blonde whole bean decaf dark roast vanilla latte”
The man behind the counter lets out a short bark of laughter, his shoulders going up and down.
“You don’t know what that means, do you?”
I shrug. Does anyone?
The man gestures for me to lean in. His fingers have deep grooves and calluses in the pads, and his knuckles are larger than one might expect them to be. There’s a loop of ink sprouting from beneath the rolled up sleeve of his forearm, and his nails are neatly trimmed. I indulge him, because of the nails.
“How about this? How about you ask for something different, and I won’t tell my coworkers you asked for a light AND dark roast coffee?”
I blush and lean away. Why does it matter? Will my boss care what kind of coffee I buy in the morning? Will the city have a preference as to the flavor of my drink? I eye the man. “You choose,”
He grins; it’s crooked and only serves to further emphasize the sharp angles of his chin.
“Medium coffee, black,” he holds his palm out like he’s asking for my hand. Come with me, I’ll teach you how to order coffee correctly. I’ll show you what kind of beans we use, how to work the syrup pumps, and if you’re lucky, I’ll tell you how I came to be the knowledgeable barista I am today.
“That’ll be $3.79,”
I offer him the money, and his eyes soften as he takes it. The smile rights itself, and the sharpness fades.
“You’ll get the hang of it,”
It’s raining, and the water droplets are talking. They speak in sloshy whispers: “Buy coffee” My boss hears them and asks his intern to get him a cup, and the girl in the cubicle across from me pays heed to their chatter: “It’s cold out- buy coffee” I concede to the gentle pitter patter on the windows and get my coat.
“Allow me to ask- will that be dark roast or light roast?”
He shakes his head as I make a dismissive gesture. I’m bothered, but his amusement is diluted by the smile he extends.
“What are you doing that requires a coffee break at 2 pm?” he raises his eyebrows while attending to the stack of cups beside him. His shirt is rolled up a little bit more and the ink loops morph into words.
“I’ll answer your question if you answer mine,”
He laughs into the foaming cup in his hands.
“Fair enough. What do you want to know?”
“What does the tattoo on your arm say?”
To the dismay of the girl behind me, he rests the unfinished coffee on the counter and rolls his sleeve up higher.
“First of all, it’s not a tattoo, it’s Sharpie. Second of all, it says I went to sleep a poet and woke up a fraud,” He observes the unmistakable confusion on my face. “It’s a lyric from Fall Out Boy,”
“You have a song lyric written on your arm…how...pretentious,” I finish.
He clasps his heart in mock pain. “Me?! Pretentious? Hypocritical much, Ms. Large Blonde Whole Bean something something,”
“But in Sharpie? How old are you anyway?”
He shrugs noncommittally. “It’s not permanent, right? I can choose what I want to write, but it’ll fade if I change my mind. I can always change my mind if I want”
“Hm. Are you sure you can handle that much caffeine?”
“What am I paying you for? Your coffee or your wit?” I counter dryly. The ache in my arm intensifies at the thought of the papers in my briefcase. Not to mention the HR junior representative asked me out over the water cooler during our break. “What do think about coming over tomorrow night? I have a lovely stamp collection, not to mention a free wine tasting, if you’re interested?” I collected rocks when I was a kid. He told me to call him when I checked my schedule.
“In your case, both,” he hands me my cup and I settle in a stool by the window. 12 emails to respond to, 3 memos from my boss, 7 messages from my mom. Yes mom, I’ll call you when I get the chance.
“3.79, unless you want anything else with that?”
I tuck the steaming cup under my chin as a stack of files balancing precariously in my arms begins to slide. Oh no you don’t. I place it on a table before it has the chance to meet its untimely end.
Memos, invoices, return phone calls, inform my boss I’ll be on vacation next week, where’s my pen?
“Hey man, congratulations on the engagement!” a booming voice carries across the room, redirecting my attention.
He waves to the man with the voice: “Thanks bro,”
I lean back into the stool. Apparently there’s no such thing as a dark AND light roast coffee, and he was only too happy to inform me of it. His chin wasn’t so distinct when he was genuinely smiling, and I was curious to know which band lyrics received the honor of being recorded in all their Sharpie glory.
My knees knock the leg of the table, reminding me of what still needs to be done. Where IS that pen?
*You have 1 new message*
“What’ll it be?” He asks, holding out several varying sized cups.
Hey I had a nice time yesterday! How about next time I take you out on the lake and show you my new pole?
“Large, please,” I point to the cup in his left. “Has it been crowded today?”
“The snow is forcing people inside, so I can’t complain,” he shrugs. “The weather is doing all the promotion for me,” I smile and take the drink from him, moving to a chair in the corner.
Someone made a smiley face out of the fog in the window, and through it I observe the hush: the emptiness of people and the ice that fills it up. Jane Eyre or Little Women? I’m a sucker for the appeal of Mr. Rochester, though the clever quips of the March sisters entice a woman who asks for comfort in a winter storm. “’Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug”...
I rub my eyes, disregarding for a moment this morning’s poor attempt at putting on makeup.
I think we should take a little break. I know we had a fun time at the play last week, but I’m interviewing for the executive position and I have to focus on work right now
His mouth forms a narrow line, but my hands are groping for change in my purse and I’m too drained to notice.
Your cousin is getting married next week and I expect you to attend the wedding
But Mom I haven’t spoken to her in years
She’ll be so offended if you don’t! It’s not a dress issue, is it?
He nods, his brows furrowed.
No mom, it’s a “we hardly know each other” issue
Well bring that man of yours as your date, you know him
I sip slowly, restraining the urge to gulp it down and scald my throat in the process. What time is it? Do I have enough to tip the taxi driver? I’ll find out in about two minutes.
I read somewhere that coffee can hurt the baby if a pregnant woman drinks it. But can I go without it for another 6 months? “Without the coffee,”
“So plus the ‘frappe’, minus the ‘cino’?” the corner of his mouth quirks up.
“Flowers! For me?”
“Anything for my beautiful wife,”
“Thank you. Oh and by the way, don’t forget about the labor breathing class-“
“Oh honey about that…as an executive, I’m supposed to go to the work party tonight. Boss will be expecting me. Call one of your friends, they’ll go with you,”
He hands me my drink and waves dismissively.
“Don’t worry about it. That’ll be $3.79,”
There’s a shiny layer of coins at the bottom of my purse, but I ignore them. Can germs on money hurt the baby? My next order of business is to buy a bottle of hand sanitizer.
“What can I get you?” his impassive, see-through eyes fall into mine as deeply as oil can mix with water, as steadily as fingers can catch that water and hold it indefinitely.
“I’ll have a medium coffee, black”
If he’s surprised, it’s hidden behind glass, eyes and mouth that don’t touch. Glass thicker than his knuckles, thicker than the band on his finger. I want to tell him it’s unsanitary, to make food with your ring on, but I don’t.
“Hon, I’m working late tonight, I can’t watch the baby,”
“But I have a book club meeting and I am the president…”
“I understand, but this is our livelihood we’re talking about. Just go to the next one. And can you turn that noise down? You know I hate those rock and roll bands,”
She’s sick, I can’t leave her with a sitter. I’m running my hands through my hair until they catch on a sticky knot. Is that…mushed banana? I hope none of it got on my briefcase. The headache I’ll have if any of it touched my files…
“Miss? Your coffee,”
“Oh?” The ringing in my ears fades and I remember I’m here, in the coffee shop. There’s a gentle pop: the conversation, the smoky lamplight in the corner, his hand draped around the coffee cup like skin.
“Your coffee,” he affirms. When she walks, her- But the rest is obscured by folds of blue fabric.
“Thank you,” Does your wife like rock bands? I want to ask him, but I don’t.
“Have a nice day,” I hear, before the exchanges between the patrons melt into a meaningless vibration.