So Bitter It Is Sweet

This you may see as a short or semi-autobiographical piece on my coffee outing with Maria. This is told from the perspective of the imaginary (is she?) barista. 

My shift began just an hour ago. I like the afternoon shift even though the tips are not that much. There is a clear difference between the grab and go morning rush for caffeine and the relaxed stay a while crowd of afternoons. Crowd is not the right word unless you can call the four people scattered in the different nooks of the coffee shop as a crowd.

I get long breaks between making the cappuccinos and scooping gelato. For that reason, I am usually the only one handling this shift. I take the order, ring them in, take my time to brew a good cup, foam the milk and clean the cups. I adjust my wristband I have been wearing to easy my carpal tunnel syndrome. The cups are washed and stacked, the customers are in their own world, I will come back to them in a minute.

There is nothing much to do. This is not Starbucks and it is not in a busy shopping center. Time flowed like frozen honey oozing out of squeeze bottle. The coffee shop is tucked away amongst a residential condominium complex. I am not one of those millennials with eyes glued to my phone. Pushing fifty I do not see a point telling strangers and facebook friends about my made up life. I stand with my elbows resting on the counter watching the four people and trying to imagine their life.

Seems pretty boring to me. A Caucasian man in his forties in buttoned-down shirt and slacks focused on his laptop.  Two college-age boys with no facial hair, god I have more facial hair than them, huddled together staring at the same laptop. Is there a college closer? I cannot think of one. Perhaps I am so old they look like college kids. The other woman walked out just when I shifted my gaze towards her. Let me see how I can make their life interesting by making things up.

Then I see her walk in.

An Indian, there are so many of them in this area. She looks about thirtyish. She is dressed like one of those GAP commercial women, light blue shirt, navy blue jacket, not expensive wool but stylish slim cut synthetic, and sleek pants with a scarf wrapped around her neck. She tap-taps in short heels. Her shoulder length straight hair hung loose. Once it was likely cut in some trendy style but the uneven growth has erased all but a semblance of it and created a whole new look that nicely framed her face. She has her phone out and a clutch which should really be called a long wallet.

“Hi what can I get you?”

She answers without making eye contact. She wants to wait. She is waiting for someone. She eyed the two-seater sofa at the quiet corner but chooses the barstool near the entrance. That vantage position is great to get a very good view of the entrance all the way to the walkway from the parking lot. Does she not know how the other party looks like or does she need considerable lead time noticing them enter so she can do her last minute preparation?

Without realizing I started writing the backstory of this woman. Some people just have the stories swirling about them. Maybe it is their eyes that telegraphed a thousand stories swirling about them. She definitely had at least a story. I wonder how far off my story is from her real one. One story I can rule out is one of those coffee interviews. She is not overdressed and seems comfortable in the jacket which makes her the executive kind.  So she is not here to interview with someone. Since she came early before the other party she is also not the interviewer because the classic power move is to be late.

That leaves out a friend or a casual acquaintance she wants to stay in touch with. Neither seems to fit her choice of seating. In either case, one would pick the most comfortable seating instead of scouting the entrance. That leaves the only possible option, she is meeting someone new over coffee. Someone she had communicated with but has not spent time with. She is keeping a watchful eye on the entrance so she can be ready with an opening line.

Even that scenario seems to lack legs. I have time. While she kept looking back and forth between her phone and the door I try to decipher her. She seems to have erected a wall between her and the rest of the coffee shop else she would have seen me intently staring at her.  Is there a ring? I remember reading rings do not signal marital status of Indian women. There is a gold chain. She has very little makeup on except for some eyeliners. So she is most likely married.

A married woman meeting a man. That makes it all the more interesting. Now I am glued to the door. I want to see the guy she is meeting.

An older gentleman walks in, he is a regular here so I quickly dismiss him as the guy. I know his order and the routine. I give all my attention to him not worried about missing the secret date guy, after all, they will come to me to order. Besides, I have a crush on this guy, his thick wedding band be damned. Someone my age cohort, so refined and a reader. I try my usual banter, laugh aloud for his answers. Well, all I get is him picking 25% tip button on the cash register iPad. Fine, I will get you another day.

As he picks his usual spot I make all the standard noise of making his cappuccino. We make it a point in this coffee shop to slow things down. I take my time running hot water through the espresso, cleaning the foam sprout and finally brewing a cup. I take pride in my froth design, the nice crema on top holds the design longer. I usually call names to get them to come to me, for Bob I take it to him. I linger asking him about the book in his hand, run my hands through my straight dark and silvery hair. What a dense fellow.

Back to the counter. Back to observing. God, time really flows slowly here. How long has this woman been waiting? She sure should dump this guy if he is late for coffee or he better be extraordinary in bed. Bob settled into his book, no point prodding him again. Hope this girl’s paramour arrives soon, I can only clean and stack up so many cups here.

After what felt like a long time I see the woman stir and smooth her hair. Definitely a coffee date. I reflexively turn to the door. Well, this is even more interesting. I see a tall Hispanic woman wearing a red blouse, jeans and knee boots walking up the ramp. Her large sunglasses covered a good part of her face, she pushed it up over her head. She was not carrying any purse, or she left that in her car in her hurry. She was tall and made long strides that showed an apology for tardiness. She was not deliberately late, I can tell, she is likely the kind that loses track of time everywhere. Her curly brown hair was loose and brushed back.

I shift my eyes to the one who is waiting. I did not see this coming. You here to see a woman, sweetie? I think about reviving my just a friend or casual acquaintance scenarios. The expectation and excitement I see in the two do not add up to show something less than amorous between the two. The Indian girl stands, steps outside the stool, leaving enough room in front of her, clearly getting in position for the hug. She must have been practicing.

I am not going to stop snooping now.

I see the two go for the hug. The new girl very lively, outstretched arms, apologizing loudly in an accented voice, a voice that is impossible to get mad at. She could be delivering the end of the world message in that voice and you still will feel everything is going to be okay. The Indian girl extends her arms like the T-Rex, correction just one arm with the other frozen by her side. What kind of hug is that?

After the pleasantries exchanged the two walk over to me.

“What can I get you lovely ladies?”

I see the two blush and steal a glance at the other.

“I will take a cappuccino”, the first brown girl.

“I will have what she is having”, the second.

I try to suppress my quip but it escapes me, “Like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally”.

The second girl gets the arcane reference and found it funny. She laughs aloud and adds, “I hope no one is yelling Yes, Yes, Yes”.

She is definitely putting on the work to woo the other. She also does not make an attempt to pay, she lets the first girl treat her. As I turn the Square card reader forward I take a good look at them. I can see what each found in the other attractive. Both so alike and yet so different. One refined looking in her attire and reserved behavior and the other the flowing energy ball that might start dancing any minute.

15% tip. Well okay, I will take it.

“Can I get a name?”, I could let them settle in and take the cups to them but I want to run an experiment to see which one or both came to pick up their cappuccino.

“I will give her name, it is easier to say than mine. Maria”, says the first girl, trying to roll the R.  I assume she is testing and tasting the name in her mouth.

“It is not difficult at all. Your name is beautiful”, laughs Maria, while her hand reaching out to touch. She must be the type that cleans up all women in a bar. Smooth. She uses her whole body to let her long hair in front, something she could have achieved with the simple use of hands but this move was such a joy to watch. I see the two yellow butterflies floating in her crown, trying to keep down the wave.

Then the big act of picking a seat. Are they going to pick the high table with seats facing each other or the two-seater at the back? The two-seater it is with the walnut coffee table in front. Maria on left and the nameless first girl on right with each slightly turned towards the other. I would not have picked it if I were meeting Bob or another guy for a tryst. These two must have their reasons.

I take my time making their drinks. My view behind the DeLonghi machine is not so good. I do not see how they are settling into it. The first few minutes are important. Who breaks the ice? What topics they browse before settling on one for a deep dive.

Two beautiful espresso cups are ready, the crema shining like gold. Before I add the froth I call out for Maria,

“Maria, two cappuccinos”.

The experiment is unleashed. I wait to see the dance of how they agree on who will pick up. Maria stands up before her partner, does elaborate hand gestures, and presses her partner on her shoulders to make her sit.

Maria walks over. Seeing her in her knee boots I imagine her as one of those South Western girls in line dancing rooms.  I wait for Maria to reach me and then show off my foam design skills by creating a fern leaf on the cup. Her eyes widen, like a child.

“Oh, my gawd, so00 beautiful. How you do that?”, that accented voice again. So sweet.

Before I add foam to the other cup she stops me and calls out to her friend by name. Wow, that is a hard name to say for me, yet Maria says it with such ease. I could only sense it must be spelled with an S and had hard consonants in it. I cannot pronounce it just after hearing it once, I will stick to calling her in my mind as Ms. S.

“You need to come see this. You will love this. Come over.”

Such a childish joy in her voice. The excitement of discovery, an unbounded appreciation for simple beauty, and the big heart to share it with Ms. S. Maria claps her hand without making sound and waits with joyous impatience for Ms. S to join her.

Well, there goes my experiment. Now Ms. S comes over, with no hesitation. She is not as excited as Maria but definitely smiling big as she walks over. What is the point Maria of you offering to pick up if you make her come over as well? Perhaps she expected her to come with her anyway?

Maria helps S by pulling her right hand as if she would otherwise lose her way in the last two feet to the counter.

Time for another experiment.

I now do a heart design with foamed milk.

S breaks a tiny smile but holds it back. Maria tries to dig it out and makes up for both in her enthusiasm.

So who will get the heart cup?

Maria offers the heart design to S.

“Do you think the two will taste different?”, Maria.

“They sure do”, I add another reagent to the experiment.

“Then we will have to taste and see.”

“What if the flavor changes after our first sip?”, says S. That is some nuanced statement posed as a question. How is this complex girl going to make it with super speed open book Maria? Is she going to peel off her layers and scrape of the cruds to let Maria reach her? Does Maria realize the girl buried beneath layers? Maria’s personality is definitely bunker busting kind, the question is if she has the patience.

The two walk back to their seat.

I suddenly feel I was invading their private space. Partly my foreboding that this not going anywhere. I should not care but it is easier for me to get off the train now before I get attached to them. I decide to look away from them as they continue to talk. My occasional glances show animated Maria and smiling but subdued S. I do not expect Maria to get through many layers today.

Over an hour I watch a few changes in S. She reaches out and touches Maria’s hands more frequently. The two are now almost turned towards each other, so close their knees touching. Maybe this is not as bad.

Maria exclaims loudly at the time, stating how late she is. Seems she is usually late to every appointment. Such a free spirit that is constrained by the clock.

The two get up and leave without noticing me. I look for their goodbyes.  They hug. This time S found her other arm and realized they can extend fully. Maria might have gotten through at least one layer. She gives a full hug. Maria goes for a kiss on each cheek.

The two walk out the door but linger for few more seconds. One more hug. They are gone.

Maria floating away like she owned the world.

S walking fast, is that a little bounce in her step?

I return to planning my next move with Bob.

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