By Carla McGill
I was reading a new biography about Walt Disney when they sat down behind me by the window. He mentioned their Starbucks “date,” which was not really a date, he said, just a casual second meeting. After half an hour I wanted to say to her, don’t be so subdued. Speak out. Twice she had said “that’s awesome.” No more awesome. Be a little hard to get.
He seemed nice enough at first. Trying to impress her, he talked about his music. Wild nights with friends, their foolish pranks. His two brothers. Both about to get married, one to the wrong girl. His job (teacher) and his dog (Schnauzer). I tapped my fingers, waiting for her to respond. Feeling the beginnings of real anguish, I almost turned around to ask her a question myself. Do you know if there is a restaurant nearby? Do you happen to know of a good dentist in town? Do you come here often? I wanted her to have a chance to say something, anything.
I turned around and pretended to glance out the window. She kept her eyes on him, the benign smile, the innocent look. Her auburn hair sparkled. His dark-rimmed glasses reflected glints of sun coming through the window.
I wanted to say to him, settle down. Don’t try so hard to be interesting. Ask about her. Be curious. Are you looking for relationship or adoration? Don’t you want to know more? Does she have a job? A roommate? Compliment her. And please, please ask her if she wants a cappuccino or a latte. Meantime he was onto deeper things. I have problems with anger, he says. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but I have these blow-ups. So I’m seeing this counselor and it’s really helping me. I nod.
I had read the same paragraph now at least seven times. I was right at the part where Walt lands in Los Angeles and is standing at Union Station. I could hear everything they said, despite the jazz playlist. Ask her if she would like to take the train to Union Station. It’s less than an hour from here, and she might have a good time. Maybe she would like to go outside, so I can focus on my reading. Now he is back to pranks, which obviously relate to the anger. What does the counselor say about these pranks? I want her to ask.
Finally he got up to go to the bathroom. After a minute or so, she picked up his cup, walked to the garbage can, and tossed it in. When she turned around and walked past my table, I wanted to say, try talking more, please don’t say awesome, please don’t get mixed up with a narcissistic, self-centered man who plays pranks and has repressed anger, who thinks he’s clever, and who never asks you any questions. Please don’t. But all I said was, “Those are really nice boots.”
Though the imagery and predicaments of hundreds of science fiction novels were in his consciousness, he still felt in that essential part of him, in that part that was separate from everything he had read, everything he had experienced growing up, that there were aliens among the citizenship of the suburban town in which he lived, and even in this Starbucks right here on the corner of Main and Magnolia in their town of 150,000. He pondered the effects of caffeine upon the Martians, the Venusians, and the Saturnalians. Were they familiar with a similar booster drug? Would it change their outlook on the inhabitants of the earth?
Ghosts, too, were among them. He knew that they could inhabit some people at will, suddenly and without warning. He looked around. Six people: two in line and four at the tables, reading, chatting, studying. Which one might be an alien?
Glenda, his therapist, said that his scenarios were largely symbolic but he was uncertain. Try to give them an interpretation, she had said. Consider what they might mean about your life. But what could inhabitation by a ghost represent in his own life? He had been a frightened child, and he had always had migraines. His mother slapped him, yes. His father hit him in the head so often that he thought he could feel it occur even when no one was around. But he was over it.
The man at the table next to him could be visiting from another galaxy. His hair looked artificial, replicated. And the color was odd, too orange. He tried to see what the man was reading, but the book’s title was not visible.
He took a sip of his double espresso and pretended to be unconcerned. The woman by the window glanced at him with a strange expression. He looked up, down, then up and down again. She was staring. He thought she seemed suspicious of him. Did she think he was an agent for the Galaxy Security Service? He knew they were in the Age of Uncertainty and Danger. He knew that spies were everywhere, protecting the planet.
He had already been here for three hours, but he wanted to finish his book, a new sci-fi mystery by his favorite writer, Miso Alexandria, and he was about to witness the denouement, so he would switch to cappuccino. The air was full of mist. He had only one errand for his sister, who was going to cook lasagna for dinner, and he had promised to clean up the dishes and make dessert. Maybe he would buy ice cream to save time, or he could make some brownies.
He got in line again, noticing that the man behind him had a strange tie pin, and how many men even wore tie pins these days?
It must be a day for strange characters and also sirens, which were going every ten minutes or so. She sat next to the window. Seated outside, just on the other side of it, a guy was either crashing after a meth episode or just having a general collapse. He gestured to his friend, wildly, exaggeratedly, his arms and hands hitting the window, knocking things off of his table. His friend wore an Angels baseball cap, looked serious. She couldn’t hear what they said as she sipped on her tall cappuccino.
Then, despite the lovely guitar music playing, the big guy at the table in the middle turned up his own music on his computer, which sounded like shouting and screaming simultaneously.The other annoyance was the computer guy’s shirt, with photos of extreme cleavage on two women.
The third strange person was a woman by the counter who stared at her nonstop. Perhaps the woman had a mental impairment, as her face twitched on one side periodically. Each time she looked up, the woman was still staring at her, and she began to squirm, as if the woman was seeing something in her that was vaguely disturbing.
More sirens. More music, now classical piano. She went up to get another cappuccino. The woman watched her. Computer guy was tapping his foot to his own music. She looked out the window to see how the meth guy was doing. He was holding his head, squeezing his hands over his ears. His friend looked out at the traffic, at another fire truck speeding past, siren blaring.
It was a scene. The woman was crying and she kept having to remove her glasses to wipe the tears that were flowing rapidly down her face. Her friend, an older, calmer woman, was quiet, listening.
“I never knew that by the time I was fifty years old, I would have these kinds of problems. I thought I would be doing well by now.”
The older woman nodded, understanding.
“I’m going to get you a grande mocha with extra sprinkles,” she said.
While she was in line, he glanced over at the weeping woman. Should he offer her something or just ignore her?
She dropped her book when she leaned over the table to answer her cell phone, so he got up to pick it up for her.
Silence for a few minutes as he put the book on the table in front of her. He noticed the title: Make Your Marriage a Constant Honeymoon. Hmmm. His wife had left him for a junior partner in the firm a few years ago. They were still technically on their honeymoon when it happened.
“Well,” she said, nodding at him and waving her hand in a symbolic “thank you,” but still weeping, “you didn’t have to be so mean.”
He went back to reviewing his brief. He would get his iced coffee with extra sugar to go.
She coughed so much that the others on that side of the café fidgeted. One guy looked up but did not scowl. The guy studying health science put on his headphones. A few others packed up their backpacks or briefcases and left. She didn’t blame them. The coughing bothered her daily. She had an appointment with a specialist coming up.
It would be dark soon. The sunset, which she could see from her seat near the window, had been unspectacular, especially compared to last week’s stunning displays. The morning, too, had been full of haze, bland, forgettable. Coughing again.
They talk about the third place, and this was hers; she was here nearly every day. She felt as if she deserved something special. A close parking spot? A reserved table and chair? She recalled telling her father that she had to watch her coffee budget, and he had looked so puzzled. He was strictly a 50-cents-a-cup man, and he had probably only been to Starbucks once or twice. When she explained that she sometimes paid more than three dollars for a coffee drink, he was astonished.
“Well, that’s got to be some pretty damn good coffee,” he had said. She loved remembering his face as he said it. He had been gone almost eight months now.
She finished her venti caramel macchiato, extra whipped cream, slowly. Wells Fargo lights shone across the parking lot. She still hadn’t balanced the checkbook. Overdrawn maybe. She would get groceries on the way home, even if she had to write a bad check, and she would get something rich and fattening, like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, or garlic bread and chocolate cake. She would get home and pet Maisie, her old tabby, who would be angry she was so late. Put in a DVD. Set up the coffee for the morning. Or better yet, return here for her coffee. A caramel flan latte, extra sprinkles.
The line was getting longer by the second, more than five new people in the last fifteen seconds or so. Every table was taken. Bob Dylan, then a James Taylor song. Relaxing. The aroma of coffee, newly ground. Inspiring. It was a world of tee-shirts and jeans, as well as suits and ties, flowing summer dresses, business suits, high heels.
Grande mocha latte. Cups and glasses lined up for the barista, this one entirely pleasant, handsome, a dark-haired, tanned young man. Winning smile. His earring was a disk the size of a dime, spreading out his earlobe.
The Frappuccino girls were busy on their phones. Venti caramel Frappuccino. Cinnamon roll Frappuccino. The syrup in elaborate swirls around the whipped cream.
The line grew longer. Two ladies smiling. Twenty-somethings.
“Tall mocha.” Thick blond hair hid most of her face.
Girl with the deepest red lipstick she had ever seen, and she was all in black. Tee-shirt, jeans, boots.
“Venti coffee of the day, room for milk.” The cashier was a tiny girl, Hispanic, wide brown eyes. She smiled as she took the gold card.
“You owe $1.21,” she said.
She dug around for change, but all she had was a twenty.
“Just put this on the card.”
After she went to the barista area, she noticed that eight more people had lined up. She had forgotten to buy The New York Times, but the line was too long now. She would catch the headlines later on at work on her first break, when the caffeine wore off.
They were already three weeks into the semester. This new batch of essays would require a double espresso, maybe two. The freshmen were right in step with previous years in their inability to write a thesis statement or even a grammatically correct sentence. For example, the first essay’s opening sentence: “I hope you could like my relation to this poem because it spoke about parts of my religion.” They had read Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” and they loved it, as in the past. They could identify with the decision-making predicament, such as where to go to college. He wasn’t sure that they chose rightly, since each student paid somewhere close to $25,000 to attend the private university that employed him.
He stood in line to get his next double espresso, and he saw two of his new students enter. The young woman from India and the soccer player from a neighboring town. They did not notice him, he hoped. He looked away and waited his turn at the register.
Once back at his table, he took out the next essay. “I interrupt the meaning of this poem to be that we have to take our hard knocks.”
Not interrupt, he shook his head. Interpret. But he had seen worse.
Next stop, the Irish pub down the street.
She found a great table, put down her books and journal, glanced around, took a first sip of her Americano. If everyone standing in line for their coffee started talking to one another, what would they say? she wondered. Suppose we were shut down somehow, from an earthquake. We would have no way out for, say, two days. We would have a bathroom, food, water. Coffee. Would we get to know each other? Savagely attack one another out of our fear? Help each other sacrificially and nobly?
The two women at the register wear scarves over their heads, obviously for religious reasons. Two children with them. The taller woman is more beautiful than the other one, and her faint smile shows that she is aware of it.
The guy behind them, twenty-something, Hispanic. Tattooed arms, jeans that drooped down around his hips. Thin legs. Eyes, a blank stare. He looks down at his phone, taps it a few times. If we were suddenly taken hostage by terrorists, what would he do?
Behind him an Asian man, beige shirt, dark-green tie. Office worker? Real estate agent? He is in his own world. But still waters, as they say. Maybe he would be the one to pull out a gun, surprising and saving us all.
The woman with red-framed glasses looked like a librarian, and she rubbed her nose after each sneeze. She badly needed a Kleenex or some antiseptic wipes. At least she was not near her in line, since she may be sick with something.
Young caramel-blond woman by the west window. Student at the nearby university, most likely. She wears shorts and flip-flops, twirls a lock of hair. Types on her laptop. Perhaps she would email someone quickly to give them information about the angry, hostile men shouting in an unknown language, threatening us with high-powered rifles or just plain pistols.
But aren’t the cameras going? Someone would surely be watching. Surveillance is everywhere. Someone would save us.
The baby was in pink, so she assumed it was a girl. A dingy and somewhat tattered little pink onesie with pale-green elephants on it. The ladies were animated, talkative. One had a sleeveless black tee-shirt, and it looked as if she had cut off the sleeves herself. Her tattoo, a barbed wire going around the upper arm muscle. The other woman was older, a few gray hairs through her bangs, and she wore red bead earrings that seemed almost too long. The baby’s hands wiggled, sometimes stretched out a little from her baby seat, sometimes pulled in close to her chest. Occasionally the baby would put one fist into her mouth, gnaw on it a little bit, and then utter a few sounds.
After a time she began to feel annoyed that the mother and her companion were not paying any attention to the baby. Perhaps she should say something. What a cute baby, she could say. How old is she? Look at her, she’s trying to communicate. She decided to time them to see how often they looked at the baby. Already at least fifteen minutes had gone by since they sat down at the table next to hers, and they had not once looked at the baby after setting down the carrier seat on the chair. The baby was even partially hidden from them.
When the baby dropped the pacifier on the floor, she looked back and forth from the baby’s face to the women’s faces. They didn’t even notice. She got up and picked up the pacifier.
“Your baby dropped this,” she said, handing it to the barbed-wire arm.
“Okay,” the woman said as she turned back to her friend with not even a glance toward the baby.
“She’s very cute.”
No warmth. No smile. She walked back to her table and pretended to glance at her cell phone. After she got back to her seat, she thought that the mother actually put the soiled pacifier back into the baby’s mouth. She overheard a few phrases from their conversation: “He won’t know what hit him” and “You should be glad.”
They got ready to leave. So far twenty minutes had passed without a glance toward the baby. As they passed by her, carrier held by its handle, she looked at the little child and they made contact. Her own smile and the baby’s somewhat frightened little glance.
She ordered a tall cappuccino with a triple shot.
She was meditative.
Images presented themselves. Blue. The ocean, a liquid sapphire. The sky beyond the horizon, and a bird on a branch.
I am blue and aqua, she thought, sometimes clear and unpolluted, sometimes deep, a reservoir of unspoken feelings.
She heard the steamer foaming up the milk.
This could be a commercial for something.
I am pale blue, a sudden hot spring emerging in the desert.
She had been thinking about going into advertising.
I am a geyser among the rocks.
She could envision the posters.
I am blue, a river through the trees, where the horses of ancient tribes came to drink.
“Tall cappuccino for Gwendolyn, triple shot.”
What a great day it was going to be.
Copyright 2016 McGill