The Barista

Chloe woke on the couch and squinted to see the clock on the VCR. Her husband had turned off the TV on his way to bed, as he did most nights. She sat up and rubbed her eyes and stood and folded the comforter and put it and the pillow behind the overstuffed chair in the corner and then shuffled down the hall to the bathroom.

Forty-five minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot of the coffee shop and was annoyed to see the new guy leaning against the side-door, smoking. She liked some time alone when she opened, when the empty shop reminded her of a darkened theater.

“You’re up awfully early,” she said as she got out of her car.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess.”

“You don’t need to get here before six.”

“Okay,” he said, and flicked the cigarette off to the side.

She let him in first, then got the lights and locked the door behind them. She put her purse in the bottom drawer of a small metal desk and fished an elastic band out of a cracked mug and pulled her long hair back into a pony tail. The new guy, dressed in an old Morrissey t-shirt that exposed skinny arms covered in tattoos from sleeve to wrist, followed Chloe as she tied on an apron and grabbed a list from the desk and pushed through the swinging doors that led to the front of the shop. She walked him through the tasks that needed to be completed before the shop opened for business, then left him alone and went to the back to grind coffee.

Just before seven, a heavy-set woman with short gray hair appeared at the front door and tapped on the glass. Chloe waved and went to the her. “That’s Mrs. Meyers,” she said to the new guy. “Whenever she shows up, it’s time to open.” The new guy looked at the clock that hung over the door to the store room.

Chloe unlocked the door and held it open. “Good morning.” The woman entered and gave Chloe a kiss on the cheek. “How’s your foot?” Chloe said.

The old woman grunted and held up her hand, as if to ward off the question, and moved slowly to the counter. When she got there, she opened a change purse, but before she counted out her money, she noticed the new guy filling the pastry case with fresh scones and bagels and rugalach. “Who’s this?” she asked Chloe.

Chloe introduced them. Mrs. Meyers looked him over, like she was thinking of buying him, and turned to Chloe. “Those holes in his ears, are those napkin rings?”

Chloe faked a cough and covered her mouth to hide her smile. She got Mrs. Meyers a small decaf, took her change, and watched her take a seat at the same corner table she’d occupied as long as anyone could remember.

Chloe patted the new guy on the back and whispered, “She’s okay. She’s just hazing you a little.”

He fingered one of the holes with a thumb and pinky. “They’re called eyelets,” he said to Chloe.

Within an hour, the shop was filled with people and the line snaked through a maze of noisy tables and ended near the door. Chloe worked the counter with Angie, her best girlfriend at work, and trained the new guy, alternating between letting him take orders and stepping in to speed things up.

Chloe hated to train. It screwed up her timing, the rhythm of taking orders, making drinks, and delivering them to the customers – her happy groove, when all conscious thought melted away and she worked automatically, reflexively, just as she had done in countless plays she’d acted in while working on her MFA.

At 11:30, the new guy left and Chloe and Angie were alone. The flow of customers was unrelenting, and Chloe found her happy groove as she and Angie moved in and around each other in a choreography worked out of hundreds of hours of occupying the same space.

At the tail-end of the rush, a group of about twenty joggers filed through the door, sweaty and loud. They were Saturday regulars and Chloe and Angie fell into a game they often played in which they took turns predicting the order of each jogger, just before the order was placed. The game had evolved to include the joggers themselves, who often changed their orders to affect the outcome. Chloe, who was on a losing streak, engaged Angie’s customers, offering them discounts to change their orders, but they mostly stuck to their established routines. A few more customers entered the shop as the last of the joggers made it to the head of the line.

“Mr. Michaels,” Chloe said, exaggerating his name. She turned and gave a big wink to Angie.

“Who’s winning?” Mr. Michaels said.

“We’re tied. Can I get you an iced cappuccino and a cranberry scone?”

Mr. Michaels looked over at Angie and shook his head. “I’m sorry, honey.”

“Whatever. It’s your OCD problem, not mine.”

“Woo hoo!” Chloe jumped and offered Angie a high-five. “The losing streak endeth.”

Angie held up a limp arm. “I let you win,” she said, and waited on the next customer.

“Nobody likes a sore loser.”

Chloe made change for Mr. Michaels and got a small plate and danced her way over to the pastry case. The last cranberry scone was all the way to the front, and as she grabbed it, something caught her eye and she slouched a little and saw him, bent slightly forward, half-turned away from her, and talking on a cell phone.

She jerked her arm out of the case like she’d been bitten, and banged her knuckles on the upper shelf, nearly dropping the scone. Her heart exploded into a burst of rapid beating. She felt like she was going to vomit. As she closed the glass door of the case, she took another look at him, and as she did, she caught her own reflection superimposed over his face. She squinted to see how she looked, wondering how much she’d changed in three, three-and-a-half years.

She went to the other end of the counter, put the plate to the side, and took a plastic cup and filled it with ice. She hadn’t seen him since the weekend in Chicago after her husband proposed. As she filled the porta-filter, her hand shook so much that the cappuccino spilled onto the counter like sand. She cursed herself. She hadn’t heard his voice since the last pleading message on her answering machine. She glanced at him and tamped hard on the shot. She tried to think of something else, but snippets of dialogue, half-forgotten memories, and quick-cut images spooled through her head in a disorienting blur, underscored by the sound of steaming milk. From the corner of her eye she caught him turning toward her. Quit looking, she thought to herself and shook the pitcher and watched the frothy milk collapse to the bottom. She scooped the foam into the cup and poured the shot and then the rest of the milk until the cup was full, and then she took a deep breath, held it, exhaled, and picked up the drink and the plate and delivered it to Mr. Michaels.

She waited until she was safely behind the counter before she let herself look. Angie was waiting on him.

“Jack?” Chloe said.

A toothy smile spread across Jack’s face. “Hey.”

She stood where she was, as though frozen, and inventoried his features. Aside from his short hair, he hadn’t changed a bit. “What are you doing here?”

He put his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “Teddy got married last night.”

“Teddy?” she said, and moved closer. “Really? Do I know the girl?”

“Maybe. She’s a first year student – an actress. Meredith…Meredith…something or other. I can’t remember her maiden name.”

Chloe shook her head. “It’s okay. I’ve lost touch since graduation.”

Angie asked if he wanted cream cheese with his bagel.

“Please,” he said. “So. What about you? You look great. How are you?”

Chloe winced. “I’m good. I’m married.”

“The same guy?” he said, looking at her ring finger.

“Yes. The same guy. Mark.” She looked over to Angie, who was pretending not to notice.

There was a moment of awkward silence, followed by them talking at the same time. Chloe gave way to Jack.

“Teddy said he didn’t think you were acting.”

“No.”

He leaned on the counter and his eyes locked onto hers, the way she remembered he would when he was really into something. “Are you teaching?”

“No,” she said. She didn’t like the scrutiny. At one time, she thought it was sexy, but now it just made her uncomfortable.

“How come?”

She didn’t answer him. She rolled her shoulders and rose up on her toes and let herself back down and sighed.

“I’m sorry,” he said, backing up. He pulled his hands out of his pockets and rubbed them together.

“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

Angie slid by Chloe with the bagel and a large coffee and rang it up.

“That’s okay,” Chloe said to Angie. “I’ve got this one.”

“No, no, no,” Jack said, going for his wallet.

“Shut up. I’m not paying. It’s free.”

Jack looked from Angie to Chloe and arched his right eyebrow. “Only if you join me.”

Chloe could hear her heart pounding.

“Go ahead,” Angie said. “I can hold down the fort.”

“Yeah?”

“Go on. I’ll get you if I need you.”

Chloe sucked her lips and stared at Jack and noticed the quivering in her stomach. She also noticed that she was very happy.

“Come on,” she said, and led him to the store room. She put him at the desk and took a broken chair for herself. She watched him spread the cream cheese on the two halves of the bagel and take a bite. He looked around the room.

“Are you still in New York?” she asked.

He nodded and managed an “um huh” with a full mouth. He licked his lips and took a sip of the coffee. “Brooklyn,” he said.

“Do you live with anyone?”

“Me and a bunch of people I work with live together in an old church.”

“I thought you hated church.”

He bit off another piece of bagel. “It’s more like a commune.”

She looked at his hands, which she’d always loved, and searched for the scar on his right thumb. They’d had their first real conversation as she pressed a rag to the cut that left the scar. It was his first year in the MFA program and he was playing Doc in Crimes of the Heart. She was an undergrad and had been cast as Babe. She fell in love with him during rehearsals, but he didn’t learn of it for another few months, when she made a drunken confession at a Christmas party. “What’s this work you referred to?”

He threw up his chin and grunted at the question. He took a big swallow. “Trying to keep a new theatre afloat. At the church. All we do is new American stuff.” He took another sip of coffee. “Guess what it’s called.”

Chloe shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Come on. You have to guess.”

She thought for a moment. “Jack’s Black Box.”

“No.” He laughed. “I can’t believe you remember that.”

“I remember everything,” Chloe said.

Jack paused and looked down at his bagel, then said, “Jingo.”

“What?”

“Jingo American Theatre.”

Chloe nodded, but said nothing.

“So?”

“So what?”

“What do you think?”

“It’s fine, Jack,” she said.

Jack groaned. “It’s fine, Jack,” he said, mocking her.

Chloe got up. “I need a coffee. You want anything?”

“No. I’m fine,” he said.

Angie was leaning against the counter, talking to a regular customer. The joggers were gone. Chloe got her favorite mug and filled it.

“Who’s the visitor?”

“Not now, please,” Chloe said without turning to face her.

Angie went back to her conversation and Chloe put the mug on a saucer and started for the back. She was amazed at how easy it was to fall back into old patterns, as though the last few years hadn’t happened at all.

She put the coffee at the corner of the desk and eased back into the wobbly chair.

“I thought you ran off,” Jack said.

“Don’t.”

“I’m sorry. That was a cheap shot.”

He picked up the bagel. “No acting or teaching?”

“No.”

“So, what do you do?”

“You’re looking at it. I run this place.” She stretched out an arm and swept it before her like a game show model. He chewed and watched her. “Mark’s in his last year of law school.” She picked up the mug and brought it to her lips. “I don’t know what I’ll do when he gets out.”

“You think you’ll get back into it then?”

She was going to lie and tell him yes, but she changed her mind. “No.”

He nodded and pushed the plate away and put his elbows up on the desk and rubbed his mouth with his left hand.        “Why?”

“I don’t know, Jack.” She’d forgotten about all the questions. Mark never asked questions. “It’s just not that important to me anymore.”

“You say you finished your MFA?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?”

“What’s that?”

“Well. I’m a fuckup who never finished and I’m running a theatre, and you…well you finished yours, probably suma cum laude, and said ‘To hell with it.’”

Magna cum laude.”

“Sorry.”

She smiled. “Weren’t you the one who said we live in the Age of Irony?”

“I stole that.” He picked at the list she’d used earlier. It had her doodlings in the margins and at the bottom. He opened his mouth, as if to speak, then paused. His eyes were glassy with tears.

“Jack, please, let’s not do this.”

He looked away and daubed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Right.”

She looked at his face. She’d always envied his complexion. Aside from the whiskers, it was like a child’s. “Are you with anyone?”

He shrugged and cleared his throat. “Not really.”

“What do you mean?”

“Between Jingo and the other work I do to pay the bills, I don’t exactly have time to mix and mingle.”

She cocked her head, as though to see him from a different angle. “You’re just like Mark.”

“Oh yeah? How’s that?”

“You’re both workaholics.”

“I thought you said he’s in school.”

“He is. But he also teaches high school English, and when he isn’t teaching or going to class, he’s holed up in our guest room studying.”

Jack would lock himself in the bathroom and soak in the tub for hours, reading scripts and marking them up with red pens. Nothing she said could get him to open the door, especially when he was excited about some theory or breakthrough. They often fought about this. This was the first time she’d made this connection between the two men, and she didn’t like it.

“Didn’t you say he’s in his last year?”
“Yeah.”

“Well. It’ll all be over in less than a year, and then you guys’ll be rolling in dough.”

She arched her eyebrows. “What?”

“He’s going to be a lawyer, right?”

“It’s not that easy.”

Jack turned her list over. There was nothing on the back.

“Is that what it all boiled down to – money?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Chicago. Remember? You said a lot of negative things about this Mark guy, but you ran back to him.”

“I was confused,” she said, her throat tightening.

“What about New York?”

“I wasn’t ready, Jack. Shit. You just up and decide to leave one day, because Spencer’s giving you a hard time? You have to admit, that’s pretty erratic.”

“I was already planning on going.”

“You never plan anything. You get an idea and take off without thinking it through.” She felt as though every muscle in her body was clenched.

“You wouldn’t even come up for a visit. Why?”

“I was scared.”

“Of what? Me?”

“I don’t know. Yes, you.”

“Why?

She didn’t answer the question. There was a moment of silence between them.

“It’s because I was poor, wasn’t it?”

“No, Jack. That had nothing to do with it.”

“Then what was it?” His eyes were big and empty and bloodshot from the previous night’s partying.

“I can’t answer that question.”

“Can’t, or won’t?”

“You know it wasn’t that.”

Angie appeared at the door, asking for help.

Jack looked at the clock on his cell phone. “I’d better get going.”

“Don’t. Not yet.”

He stood. “Why?”

Chloe shrugged. “I don’t want it to end like this.”

He thought a moment. “My flight’s not until the morning. Can I see you later?”

“Can’t you stay?”

“I’m supposed to meet someone. What about dinner?”

She looked to the door and back to him. “I don’t know.”

“Do you have plans?”

She laughed. “Not hardly.”

“Come on. It’ll give us a chance to end on the right note.”

She bit at the inside of her mouth, then grabbed her list and wrote her cell number on it. “Call me later. I need to take care of some stuff first.”

He folded the paper and stuck it in his back pocket. She stood and they hugged.

“You smell the same,” she said.

“Is that good?”

“It’s good.”

He nodded. “I’ll call you later. Around five?”

“Okay.”

And then he left.

She finished her shift in a fog, and called Mark to tell him she was going out for drinks with Angie. They went to a Mexican place down the street and ordered frozen margaritas the size of small fishbowls and Chloe told Angie all about her and Jack. As they were finishing the second round, Chloe’s phone rang. She dug it out of her purse and set it on the table. It was an unfamiliar area code. They watched the phone until it stopped ringing. A minute or so later, it beeped. A voicemail message. Neither of them spoke.

Chloe was working on her third margarita. Angie stopped at two. The waiter brought a basket of chips and an order of cheese dip as the phone rang a second time. Chloe leaned forward to see the screen. It was the same number as before.

“Aren’t you going to answer it?” Angie said.

“No.”

Angie let it go, and they watched the phone until it stopped ringing. A minute later, another beep.

They ate without saying much, and Angie drove Chloe home. As Chloe got her keys out of her purse, Angie said, “Want me to come up?”

“I’m okay. Thanks.”

Angie bent over and hugged her and told her she loved her.

Chloe watched the car disappear, then stepped inside her building and dug the phone out of her purse. She pushed a few buttons and heard Jack’s voice, full of mischief and adventure. She deleted it before he finished, and then the next message started. He sounded different, this time.

“It’s me. I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Well…I’m glad I got to see you. It was good talking with you. You looked great and…well, I’d better go. Take care.”

She deleted the message. She was sleepy. She shut the phone off and put it back in her purse and went up to the apartment. The lights were off, except for the one that spilled into the hall from the guest room. Chloe put her purse and keys on the table by the door and went to the kitchen and got herself a glass of water.

“Is that you?” Mark said.

“Yeah.” She got some ice and dropped it in the glass and went to him.

He was at his desk, rubbing his eyes and stretching. “What time is it?”

“I don’t know.”

He squinted at her and put his glasses back on. “Are you okay?”

“I had a few margaritas with Angie.”

“That sounds good, right now. Did you eat?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be.” He pushed himself away from the desk and stood up and stretched again. “I think I’m going blind.”

“I’m kind of tired. I think I’m going to take a shower and crash.”

He took her glass and put it on the corner of the desk and pulled her to him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“It was a long day. I had a trainee, and it was non-stop customers.”

He hugged her and told her he loved her and that this time next year she wouldn’t have to do this anymore. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her head in his chest. He smelled a little sour.

She stepped into the shower and put her head under the water and inhaled the smells of the coffee shop washing out of her hair. It felt good. She stood there like that a long time, turning the hot water hotter and hotter until her body was red. She washed her hair and squeezed out the last of the conditioner, then washed her body from head to foot.

The bathroom had no exhaust fan and was like a sauna. Usually, she cracked the window and opened the bathroom door to get the steam off the mirror, but this time she went through her routine in a fog and applied lotions and brushed her teeth and then dressed in the sweats and t-shirt she loved to sleep in.

She opened the bathroom door and the steam escaped into the hall and vanished, taking her remaining energy with it. She got her water from Mark’s desk and the pillow and comforter from behind the overstuffed chair and put the water on a coaster on the end table and spread the blanket on the couch and wrapped herself in it. She reached for the remote and clicked on the TV.

Its sound drew Mark to the room, and he sat on the end of the couch and ate a ham sandwich and watched whatever she watched without saying a word. After a while, he got up and disappeared to the kitchen. A moment later, he came back and kissed her and told her he loved her, and then headed down to hall to his studies.

Chloe lay there a while, staring at the TV but not really watching it, until she fell asleep as she did most nights.

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A first-draft take on life