She appeared to me as the last Autumn leaf to fall before December whisked the world’s beauty away. She was the essence of my daily espresso-as I now associate her passing presence to its description. It may as well be that I fell for her as though her eyes saw mine years before I saw hers… somehow through the mirage of a coffee cup. Had she been in my place, her admiration would be seen as an admiration exceeding nothing more than a playful infatuation; a hesitant, experimental look into her future, perhaps. My place was not her own, however, and we could never share it.
It was in the season of the year where mid-afternoons began to taste sharper when she appeared to me. My pride had driven my stride quite too far on an unfamiliar block of the city after having left a late luncheon with a cacophony of corporate supervisors. I had avoided disrupting my adequate intellectual standing by withholding my desire to request directions to the nearest bus station, consequently leading myself astray. My knees had begun to complain; my legs, to fatigue; each vertebrae aching with the weight of assignment upon individual encyclopedia of assignment.
After I had sufficiently worn a hole in the right heel of my sock (I know I had done so due to the grating sense of flesh against faux leather), I came across a box to the left of the sidewalk. Not a box in the traditional sense, not one with an emptiness exactly reminiscent of Schrodinger’s experiments, but this crate did include four walls, a protective ceiling of sorts, and held a present of a presence…
Cafe. No more, no less. No name, save for the c, a, f, e. The accent ague had fallen off an indeterminate period ago, but a shadow of mason’s glue still remained, chipping and sprinkling residue on passerby. My mind holds no doubt that a cobbler will discover remnants of that nonexistent inflection in the grooves in my Oxfords decades from now, a Neolithic dust, an unknown relic of the past.
I modified my path and entered the peculiar premises, catching the lip of my shoe on the up bound step into the room. Hurriedly retrieving my balance, I hoisted my satchel back to its resting place upon the crook in my shoulder.
“Afternoon!” A voice chimed. Hers.
I didn’t take this opportunity to look at her; I wish I had.
“Afternoon.” The impersonal, uninflected tone of a businessman.
I angled myself away from the direction of her voice; I wish I hadn’t.
She must have been clearing tables when I traipsed to the counter, disregarding my luck that I could have witnessed her before the happenstance that I had. I was greeted by the strong, bitter, thermal scent I would come to associate with this establishment paired with a flash of teeth from the barista.
The menu suspended by creeping-vine cords swayed lazily above the register and disclosed a plethora of beverages, all but the various typical few foreign to me.
Flat White… $4.50
Ca Phe Sua Da… $2.75
Shot of Flavor… $0.50
The menu had been extended on an additional slab suspended to the right, which listed pastries, sandwiches, soups, all du jour and written on slips of paper in a calligraphic hand. They had been adhered to the black background by minimalist white magnets, some of which were beginning to lose their attraction, causing them to slide out of line. “Seasonal edibles,” it boasted. Each and every treat from the local shops lining the street.
I scanned the name of each drink, venturing to imagine the contents of those with unfamiliar titles.
“Need a dissertation?” The barista’s baritone cut through my haze. I started. The whites of his teeth were blinding.
“Yes, ah, please.”
“Daria can help you out.” He beckoned for her and she hustled over, eager: new.
A light pitter-pat of small feet wove around me, crossed the threshold behind the counter – and I saw her.
I was staring. I must have been. If my pupils had belonged to the paintbrush of a painter, they would have reflected stars and burned a hole in her head.
She smiled at me. She smiled. It was her job, a requirement to be polite, an occupational prerequisite (and not nearly as blinding as her associate’s), but it affected me nonetheless.
“Hello!” Her voice crisper than Autumn air.
“Alright, you have questions about our menu?”
She had the audacity to laugh. To elaborate and compare its tone to wind chimes would be a gross misinterpretation of her chortle. She was not dainty. She possessed an unapologetic determination in her glee.
“Okay, I’ll do my best to help. You know what the basic espresso and latte are, right?”
“Everything else foreign and confusing?”
“I know what a cappuccino is – that counts, right?” Of course it does, stupid.
“Of course!” She kindly left the ending of her sentence to the wind.
Thus began her dissertation. She was, without a doubt, on her way to receiving a raise, regardless of her relative inferiority. I, however, may be immorally considerably biased.
She introduced the Ristretto first – literally translated from Italian to mean ‘restricted’, it contained half the amount of water used to create the traditional espresso, yet was brewed utilizing the same amount of coffee grounds – explaining why a fraction of an espresso remained the same price.
She continued down the board, stretching to snag two-ounce, four-ounce, eight-ounce, miscellaneous-ounce dine-in cups to demonstrate the volume of each final creation. A Macchiato (or ‘stain’) would be presented in a four-ounce glass, and was quite different than the “popularized ‘Macchiato’ served by coffee franchises nationwide”. Those, she explained, were more appropriately titled Latte Macchiatos – pretentious, milky beverages stained with coffee, rather than their smaller, converse grandparents.
A Cappuccino contained less milk than a Latte, and a Flat White contained an amount of milk somewhere in between the two.
“If you’d like something a little richer,” she added, “I’d take the Breve. Basically, it’s a latte, but instead of milk we use half-and-half.”
Her timbre became ambient noise in the middle of her explanation of how the Spanish Cortado barely differed from the Italian Macchiato, but is equally as important to recognize, and completely caught me off guard when she pronounced the last item on her list.
“I-I’m sorry…?” Stuttering, stuttering, stuttering.
“Ca Phe Sua Da.”
“Cafe who duh?”
Oh, Lord help me, she chuckled again.
“Cah-” I repeated.
“Swah-” One more.
“Dah. Ca Phe Sua Da,” I wasn’t about to try, to trip over my words as I tripped over my own two feet. “It’s Vietnamese. Like the rest of our beverages, you choose your roast and we prepare it as a pour-over, but we stir it into sweetened condensed milk instead and pour it over ice. It’s placed in an eight-ounce glass, and then it’s done.”
It sounded refined.
“It’s my favorite,” she added. What a surprise.
I scanned over the menu again, partially because I wanted to spend as much time in her line of sight as possible, partially because I didn’t want to disappoint with my choice, and partially because I was trying to find the one that appealed to me the most… that I was also able to pronounce.
“I’ll take a ristretto.”
“Good choice! That’ll be two dollars.”
I fished out my wallet from my back pocket and flipped it open, fiddling through Abrahams and Andrews to present her with exact change.
“There’s two.” I managed a tight-lipped smile through a plastic-wrap profile.
“Excuse me, sir,” the baritone of the barista who met me cut through my hesitant satisfaction. “What roast did you want today?” I was not attempting to experience another lecture regarding high-quality, gourmet, probably sourced from an ‘all-organic, environmentally-and-community-conscious-state-of-the-art-coffee-bean-plantation’ grounds. I suggested that he simply surprise me. He appeared content.
Shifting my weight onto one heel, I swiveled and chose a cozy booth seat, my sole company the various air plants dangling gracefully from the ceiling. The flap of my satchel was opened and the bag’s contents freed onto the table. I sifted through forms, lists, numbers, paper, paper, paper, and organized myself as much as possible, trying to distract myself from what didn’t matter, what couldn’t matter, with what did.
I had deadlines, she had homework, she flirted with boys and was addled with anxiety when her parents kept her home on Friday nights; at least that’s how she appeared to me. She was too naive, too bright, too unencumbered by the world. A girl (a girl!), not yet a woman. I had bosses. I had bus stops. I had bills to pay. She had a chance to get out of here someday.
How fitting, I scoffed to myself, that I order the restricted espresso.
Author’s statement: I am currently moseying my way through Vladmir Nobokov’s Laughter in the Dark, which is quickly proving to be one of my favorite books of all time. My attempt to portray a strange psychological and poetic aspect of the human mind was inspired by the topics he writes about and how he does so. If you’re currently looking for something to read and want to get more into classic literature, I highly recommend a Nobokov.