It was her first time at the coffee shop on the corner of Gibson and Shiloh. The familiar green pigment that so many caffeine enthusiasts have been conditioned to associate with good vibes were replaced by an equally pleasing baby blue but a tad darker. Perhaps a toddler blue. Other than that the decorum was fairly standard. The furniture was nice and dark, suggesting a premium product for premium customers. Since the table endured little more than overpriced coffee being slid across it, pens tapping in search of inspiration and pointy elbows bearing down, it was able to maintain this façade. The chairs were comfortable. They weren’t so ergonomic as to lose there chicness of course, more like a welcome way to rest the lower extremities for an hour before getting fidgety and allowing for a new wave of customers. I know all this because I frequent this smart coffee shelf myself for hours. Not too worry though, I sit on the outside looking in. Nobody notices you there and the seats are too uncomfortable to be used except for the busiest of times. The hustle and bustle of people still paying the man drowns out the non-evocative music that graces customers even outside of the sturdy glass walls. There’s less pressure out here. I don’t get trapped between those uniformed in a beanie and those uniformed in a suit in all weather conditions.
Enough about me though. Like I was saying.
It was her first time at the coffee shop on the corner of Gibson and Shiloh. She found her place in line and took a quick glimpse of the menu. Much too short a viewing too have discerned which items would best suit her palate. Her gaze did not return to the inscribed chalkboard list of choices though, just surveyed the cozy shop and its patrons. Nevertheless, when she slid in front of the cashier, she didn’t miss a beat. She ordered what looked to be a cup of Borgia coffee and a biscotti glazed with chocolate that first day. After gathering her order she made her way to an elevated table, set her purse down, pulled out a book and read for the next hour.
The next day was a similar routine. The briefest of moments spent looking at the menu and another order of a coffee and pastry. A different combination. Every single day for weeks on end. She appeared old enough to be at a comfortable retirement age which perhaps explains why she never appeared to be in a rush. Her face was not plastered with makeup; it had the lightest of dabs and dashes to compliment her wholesome face. By all measures she was certainly still a lovely woman. She had the look of a woman who matured into her visage later in life. No need for garish necklaces or earrings and she knew it. Perhaps the stately lady’s most striking feature was her hair. It was never ornate, nor was it ever cropped to the style of others of her age. Her hair was always given its freedom to be let down, but stayed subservient and never appeared to be out of place. As she read her books, her lustrous silver hair would gently shield her face from any and all distractions.
Her weekly books consisted of what appeared to be books she had seen and heard about in yesteryears and was now finally getting around to. None purely romantic. All thought provoking and incisive; provoking a healthy internal tension. Her selection included the likes of Water for Elephants, Dept. of Speculation and Beautiful Ruins.
Even amongst the large populace of customers, it was impossible for her to go unnoticed. One fresh out of high school barista in particular had developed a detached fondness for the silver-haired coffee consumer. Her co-workers, appreciative, yet uninterested had not picked up on the pattern. Our hourly barista most certainly had though. And after 96 days she was fairly certain today was the day she’d finish the gamut. She picked up a broom so as to appear less direct. When her adventurous regular turned the page in this week’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, she seized her opportunity.
She interjected, “M’am, may I ask you a question?”
“Certainly. I hope I can answer,” she responded, quickly brushing her hair out of her face.
“I’ve been serving you for some time now and, well, I think today is your last day if I’m not mistaken.”
“I see you’ve developed a keen sense of awareness during your time here. You are correct my dear.”
The older woman, sensing there were more questions to come, closed her book, relaxed her posture further and gestured for the young barista to sit down. With a quick glance around to gauge the needs of the shop, she eagerly sat and questioned further.
“So anyways, why have you been trying every single item? Most people find one they like and stick with it.”
“I don’t know. I mean. Once I know I like a drink, I know I like it whereas the other drinks might leave a sour taste.”
“But what if another beverage is better?”
“It probably won’t be that much better. My taste buds are about as sensitive as they’ll ever be and even now I can barely tell.”
“Okay, now what about different coffees with different pastries.”
“I can see that affecting taste perception more.”
The elder asked with a slight grin, “but would you have tried all the combos if you had predetermined your coffee first?”
After a brief repose, the girl replied, “I’d imagine not. I’d much rather try everything with my boyfriend. It’s much more fun that way. Why do you always come alone?”
Immediately regretting her careless probing, she looked downward and then around the shop to see if anything needed immediate attention. With nothing in sight she was about to apologize, but was cut off.
“You’re quite alright for asking. And I agree, it often is more fun,” the elder said with a wistful smile driven by youthful memories whose specifics had been long forgotten. “My second husband would have been a welcome companion.”
“Has he passed?”
“Yes. Much too young, but at least our kid was grown.”
“What about your first husband?” The barista felt much more confident with her questions now that the elder had already proffered personal details.
“Last I heard he’s still kicking. Probably too hard for his age if he’s stayed the same,”she said with a chuckle followed by a sip of coffee.
“So the pair of you divorced then?”
“I suppose we did. Rarely use that word though. Too much like the masses. Too banal.”
“What happened?” the barista inquired, not missing a beat.
“Is this boyfriend of yours your first serious one?” the silver-haired lady asked, responding with a question of her own.
“I suppose it is. We’ve had discussions about our future–”
“And you can’t imagine it not working out, can you?” she said with understanding eyes and a knowing grin.
“I have my doubts on days, but I love him. But I’m sure you loved your husbands.” She paused, not really knowing what else to say and suddenly feeling inadequate to talk of such things in the midst of someone likely three times her age.
“That I did. My first husband was Isaac and he was a smoker. Chronic. That stuff’ll kill you of course and obviously I didn’t want that to happen to him so we argued and I pleaded and he would get irritated and so on and so on. I didn’t want any secondhand smoke for my own health’s sake so I made him go outside and do it, but even then it seemed that cloudy haze would linger. Well I guess with so much of his time spent with his pack, we kind of lost sight of each other. He had always implored me never to settle and so I didn’t settle for him and that was that.”
“How did he take it?”
“Not well. He was a passionate man, but at the end of the day, he still had his smokes.”
“M’am, that sounds terribly sad if I’m being honest.”
“It was. Here I am after all these years and I’ve watched so many friends and family go. I was so certain, so certain, that he’d take his last breath before all of us and was exceedingly afraid he’d take mine with him when he went. Now he’s still buzzing around like a leaked aerosol can and I’m sitting here telling a stranger about the first man that ever took my breath away.” A flicker of pain traced her face before it was quickly nipped, a skill from years of practice. The conversation veteran couldn’t help but chuckle. She had never had a discussion quite like this.
The young girl, satisfied with the happenings of the first husband moved on to the next. “How did things work with your second husband?”
“They worked. Henry and I met soon after and started out with a bang. Circumstances were different for us and it seemed everything was easier with him. We spent less time fighting the world. Before long we got married in a whirlwind of decisions and had our child a short time after. I’m not proud to say that somewhere along the way I think I let him steal my breath and I’m not sure I ever got it back. He never did look at me like the first.”
Again a flicker, but before it could take hold, she cordially patted the arm of our young barista. “At least now, I have plenty of time to warm my lungs with coffee and warm companions.”
Taking a more assertive tone, she continued, “I want to make it clear that in our parley filled with inquiries, there is no question that I loved my daughter. That was unwavering through and through. However, the love for Henry became more and more predicated on dedication. Frankly, Isaac would have been proud.” Pleased with her reflective musing, she carried on, “Sometimes I wonder if Isaac knew the difference between love and dedication. Sometimes I wonder where the demarcation is myself. Demarcation. He would have been proud of that word.”
The now pensive young woman had begun to drift into musings of her own relationship. She wrangled herself away and stayed present for her last visit with her venerated customer. “I can’t help but ask, do you think you made the right choice?”
“Are you a barista or a bartender?” the elder said with a genial smile. “The circumstances were so different. You can pretend like you are above such things and they don’t matter, but they force themselves in. At the time, I thought I’d lose my breath you see. How do I weigh that against my miniature lifetime of firsts with Isaac? I think with Henry I got to see the best and worst of myself, without either ever sticking. With Isaac I was myself.”
With that, both parties knew their time was up. After voicing their pleasure at getting to meet each other the barista asked one last question, “Which combo did you enjoy the most?”
“The first day’s,” she said with ease. “Now I know for sure.”
With that she grabbed her purse and made her way out. She carried herself with aplomb garnered by a life well-lived, yet I now detect a modicum of bereavement in her gait that wasn’t visible before. I’ve never seen her again, but I have seen the characteristics in the walks of others ever since.