“What can I get you?” Carolyn was asked. She raised her eyes from the askew tangle of newsprint. The server was tall, messily graceful as he slumped over the counter like a bending willow branch. His hair, black and tousled, cascaded down his forehead in allegiance with his posture.
"Café au lait, grande," Carolyn answered crisply. She simultaneously stashed the Times section in her bag while fishing out her maroon coin purse.
"Whipped cream?" Willow Boy asked. His eyes were blank, like a vacant, poisoned ocean. Carolyn found him delicious in a wholly unhealthy way. She hesitated.
"Not today," she said finally, letting a sigh of regret out for the whipped stuff, the Willow Boy, all of it. This, she decided, was to be a day of self-deprivation.
Carolyn paid, Her attention snapped back to the girl behind her.
"I have to go. Yeah. I'm about to order. I'll be there. 3 o' clock. With traffic, I hope it's not too bad."
Grabbing napkins absently with one hand from the Counter Of Coffee Accessories, Carolyn was finally able to turn and watch the young woman. She was attractive, with flawlessly clear skin so scrubbed it looked lacquered. But that was where her self-care seemed to end. A loose sweater and baggy jeans hung from her frame like wet animals. Her hair, limp, flat, dirty blonde, hung at different lengths, unmindful that there might be a hint of uniformity in the universe. As Carolyn tried to watch with discretion, the young woman snapped her flip phone closed, dropped it into an enormous, low-hanging purse. She breathed deeply, a sigh Carolyn thought may have turned into a cry or scream in a less public place. Then the girl stepped ahead to the counter. "Coffee. Big," she said.
"We have normal, tall and grande," Willow Boy said. He didn't see the young woman. He was watching the far wall as if waiting for it to be knocked down by invisible forces.
"Grande, giant, whatever," she said. She dug into her purse, somehow retrieving whatever loose cash was there. She slapped a bill onto the counter like a triumph.
This was a moment, a decision. At work, in the dimly lit office where Carolyn usually graded essays as she leaned toward the desk lamp the way her plants stretched toward the cracks in the blinds, it would have been an easy choice. Don't get involved.
But it was another place. A different kind of girl, probably outside of any of Carolyn's spheres. Only the Coffee Bean Sphere, with its light alt-rock on the speakers above, held them within each others' orbit. This was a sphere with influence. A place of quiet conversation, caffeine and cocoa colors. Carolyn wondered if there were women in this girl's life. Or if she was surrounded in life by boys, not men of course, but boys like the cell phone berater.
Carolyn looked at her watch. 45 minutes to spare. She could read the paper. Or she could talk to the girl. Try to change the horrible look on the young woman's face. She was sitting now, having filled her plain coffee (or as plain as they served it in a palace of bean enhancement like this) with cream and sugars. A small line had formed, a vertical slash between the girl's eyebrows. She looked as if she'd misplaced something. She was looking into her unlidded coffee, as if the mysterious lost item might have fallen into the cup. Her mouth was half open. She took breaths deep enough to lift her whole body and bring it back down an inch at a time. Carolyn wanted that face to change. She didn't care how. Anything was better than that low, lonely look in a coffee shop nearly full of people.
Carolyn went for it. “Beth? Is that you?” Carolyn asked the girl as she approached her table. It was an old trick, but one that worked most of the time.
The young woman turned, saw that Carolyn was looking directly at her, and shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. My name’s not Beth.”
“Oh,” Carolyn said, drawing it out to make herself seem even older. “I could have sworn. You know, you look just like one of my students.”
“You’re a teacher?” the girl asked. It was perfunctory politeness: She was already staring back into her coffee instead of waiting for Carolyn’s answer.
“I teach at the university,” Carolyn said. “English lit. My name’s Carolyn.”
“Um, yeah. I’m Ally. Allison.”
“Pleased to meet you, Allison. Do you mind if I sit here?”
Allison didn’t respond. The girl, instead, nodded her head, pointed it to the opposing chair at the same time.
“So the guy on the phone. He sounded like a real asshole,” Carolyn said.
Allison’s head snapped up at attention. “Excuse me?”
“On your cell phone. The one you were talking to in line.”
Allison forgot her coffee. Carolyn noticed with amusement that the girl had shifted from disinterest to suspicion in a single sentence of conversation. “My boyfriend. He’s not, you know, an asshole. You don’t really know him.”
“I’m sorry,” Carolyn said, holding her hands up like well-manicured shields. “It just sounded a little rough. You didn’t sound very happy.”
A long moment as the girl considered her options. Carolyn could feel the mental calculation: Ignore the older woman? Honesty? Lie about the boyfriend? Curiosity must have won out, however: “I wasn’t very happy. You heard all that?” Allison said.
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” Carolyn said. “It sounded frustrating for you. Are most of your conversations like that?”
The young woman opened her mouth to answer, then stopped suddenly. What happened next was something Carolyn knew math teachers experienced: The sudden flash of understanding on the face of a pupil when the mystery of a theorem or the balance of an equation suddenly righted itself in their mind, creating sense and order out of confusion. It was the realization of truth. “You know, yeah,” Allison said. “It happens… a lot.”
Carolyn leaned in. This was a conspiracy now, or it would soon be. Conspiracies needed discretion. And it needed women who weren’t afraid to lean in at the table.
“Can I tell you a secret? A few, actually. It might help,” Carolyn said.
Continued next week...
Heh heh. "Butte." Hee hee. Ha. "Butte." Heh heh. (Sigh...)