The girl, Allison, said nothing. But she leaned into the table, her elbows pressed against the edge, eyes lit with curiosity.
"We're not good, long-time friends, but I can tell you the things I'd tell someone who was. About men like your friend on the phone there. It would be the things that we'd already both know from years of sharing. How would that be?"
Allison slowly nodded, dreamily. She'd given up the pretense of suspicion, Carolyn was pleased to see. Her curiosity (and maybe a teaspoon or three of desperation) had overcome her defenses.
"Okay, then. The boy. On the phone, what's his name?"
"Chris." She said it flatly, with no emotion. But then she bit her lip. Carolyn knew she didn't want to hear what was coming.
"And he asked you to do something today?"
"He wanted me to take him to a rehearsal. For his band. But I've already taken off from work to do that in the last couple of weeks, and last time I got in trouble. He doesn't believe me when I say I might get fired."
"Carolyn?" She looked up at the counter. Willow Boy was setting the café au lait on the counter. There it sat, a lonely and lovely cup, adrift from the biscotti and the snack case.
"Be right back," Carolyn said. She retrieved the coffee, added the sugar she needed, and returned to the table. "Rehearsal," she said. "So he's a musician."
Allison frowned. "You mean does he try to play music? Yeah. Does he actually perform with a band in front of people for money? Not yet."
"But if you don't take him to these rehearsals, you're a bad girlfriend and you're holding him back from his rock star dreams. Is that right?"
Allison smiled for the first time in the conversation. "Yeah. Like that, I guess."
"What happens if you get fired from your job?" Carolyn asked.
"Oh, God," the girl said. She shook her head. "I don't know. Not pay rent? It would be a disaster. I'd have to call my parents, maybe move back home for a while. It would be bad. I don't want to do that."
"You live with him?"
"For about a year, yeah." Ally sipped at her coffee. Tiny sips. Carolyn wondered if her coffee was cold by now.
"How is it otherwise? Living with him?"
Allison didn't answer quickly. She stared hard at the tabletop. Finally, she said, "Okay. Fine, most of the time. You know, he's my boyfriend but sometimes he's a roommate. Does that make sense?"
"What do you want out of it?" Carolyn asked. The café au lait was creamy and perfect. She took a long taste and listened.
"I wanted to… for him to love me and us to have good times like we did at first and… It feels like we're married sometimes. Bills, dishes. We don't really go anywhere anymore," Allison said. She'd taken her hands off the coffee cup and was now wringing them in her lap.
"This is the secret I want to share with you, Ally. It comes from a lot of heartaches, not just mine, and a lot of years of thinking about things just like this. Are you ready?"
"I guess. Yeah," Ally said. She sounded not at all hopeful.
"There are exceptions to this rule, and I'm not saying it's all doom for the future. But someone you're with, a man. The way things start out the first year or so, that's usually the bass-line. Do you know what I mean by that."
"I think so. Yes."
"And from that place, it's probably not ever going to get any more exciting or loving or become a more attentive relationship. He might care more about you over time, but it's probably not going to get any more passionate than it is right now. If anything, it's going to settle into something even more…" Carolyn though she had the word, but it had eluded her. "…even more… settled."
"Wow. Okay," Allison said.
"So what you have to ask yourself is if that's okay. And if it is, great. Maybe things will grow. And you'll be building off a good thing. But if the stone under the floors is already cracked and brittle, there's maybe not a lot you can do with that," Carolyn said. Another sip of the au lait, more sweetness on a bitter tongue.
Allison was very still. She said nothing.
"That's it. That's the secret. Nothing too earthshattering. Except for one thing."
"One thing," Allison repeated, mechanically.
"One thing: There's nothing wrong with staying in a situation you shouldn't be in. If, and this is a big if, Allison: If you know that you're in it and why. Sometimes cutting your losses ends up hurting you the most. Especially when you're stuck with a lease, an angry ex-boyfriend and friends in common. No one will blame you for sticking things out for a little while. As long as you're aware that you're doing it."
"That's a lot to think about," Allison said.
"Yes it is," Carolyn said. She was halfway through the au lait. She'd talked a lot and was now taking bigger sips to compensate for the time and heat lost.
"Thanks. I guess that was stuff I needed to hear."
Carolyn grabbed her purse and picked up her coffee cup. She stood.
"You're leaving?" Allison asked. "Do you want me to call you or something and let you know what happens?"
"I'd really prefer it that you didn't," Carolyn said. "It's where I've been before, and there's not really a reason for me to revisit those places. You'll feel it if you're doing it right."
Carolyn registered the look of disappointment on the girl's face. Her gut had been right. Allison probably didn't have any women to talk to in her life. But that didn't add any time to Carolyn's day or decrease the number of students looking for counsel of nearly the same kind on a daily basis.
Carolyn knew, perhaps as well as anyone, how many Allisons there were: Cornered, love-hungry and alone. And she knew how few of them could really be helped.
As she left the Bean, Carolyn noted with satisfaction that the wait line had grown to six customers. They'd be waiting a long morning while for their coffee.
"Yes, yes. Even I will admit that the bald eagle's ass is not quite so majestic as the rest of me."