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The bus-route to the JUMPING JAVA! seems to tendril further into eternity than usual; maybe it’s the thirty-something business man who offers you a small, devilishly flirtatious smile, and then his glance that falls to your right shoulder, to the space that your right arm should occupy. Probably it’s the wince of disgust he quickly attempts to disguise with a second, pitying smile, hurriedly burying his nose in a newspaper.
It could be the small girl though, silver, sparkling pants catching the light, her pink, plastic earrings clanging an annoying rhythm against the metal pole she holds. One minute her lips are keeping a constant, rapid-fire rhythm, her hips swaying obnoxiously to whatever she has plugged in her ears, the next her mouth has fallen ajar and her first finger is doing an impression of Uncle Sam.
“Mommy, Mommy!” she trills, her voice climbing in excitement, her free hand yanking on a preoccupied woman’s sweater. The unsuspecting mother reddens in abject mortification, sharply jerking the child’s arm, hissing disapproval of “such a scene” and possibly something about “showing your nipples”; more likely “staring at cripples”. Punishments are issued, apologies made, but the damage has already been done.
Thanks to the ever-reliable sixth sense, also known as Captain Obvious, the hot tingling which soon spreads across the back of your neck, skittering shivers down your spine, clues you in on what you already know. The open stares of your fellow vehicle-less Americans remain your constant companions the next three stops.
And when finally, finally, you duck into the JUMPING JAVA!, cold air nipping and biting your cheeks for the thousandth time, you’re unable to fight a wince at the harsh jangling of tiny silver bells, obnoxiously announcing your arrival.
It may very well be the dawn of a new day, shiny and new and beautiful; praise Jesus or Apollo or the Universe or whatever else. But somehow you already know every dragging second of every crawling minute of every endless hour.
And just as you finish artfully tacking a short, white, JUMPING JAVA! apron loosely around your midsection (rather quickly too, you think, for a “special person” or whatever they’re calling you these days), and clipping your HI I’M APRIL! nametag to the corner of your t-shirt (also somewhat impressively managing not to draw blood with the sharpened point), the conspicuous tingling of the front door tugs a soft sigh from your tired mouth. You make your way over to the register, taking your sweet time, knowing that regardless of how many customers complain about the inefficient service, you cannot be fired without crippling legal ramifications which you know MANAGER JOE! can’t afford.
Remembering this though, is small pacification as you take in the Tiny Human, one of three daily Regulars, balancing precariously on tip-toe, grubby hands gripping the counter in a lame attempt at seeing over its top, a childish air of inpatients about her as she waits to tell you her order.
Pacify. Ha ha. You smirk slightly at your unintentionally clever use of the adjective. How the hell does an unaccompanied six year old girl get to a coffee shop every morning anyway?
Stella knew it was really soon in the morning ‘cause of the sun, how it seemed like at the time when her mommy wouldn’t rub her arms with the sunblock with the ugly baby picture on the front. She had already told her that she was a big girl, and she that didn’t need babies, or sunblock.
Stella thought about the sparkly-pink watch she didn’t take off last night after bath because her mommy had told her to take it off, and as long as she had to wear babies and sunscreen, she was never going to do anything her mommy told her to do ever again (as long as her mommy wasn’t watching or else she would get in trouble).
She had snuck downstairs that morning, just like the morning before that and maybe the one before that but Stella just couldn’t remember that far away.
She had tippy-toed down her mommy and Phil’s dark hallway and listened to see if they weren’t awake. She had heard them whispering in soft voices, and she had been reminded then of the same soft tone her mommy had used to tell Stella that she would come live with Phil and her, instead of with her daddy and Julia.
She had known her glittery shirt was in the clothes spinner, so she had tippy-toed to the room where her mommy said shoes weren’t supposed to be in, stopping along the way to pull her silver sneakers on without untying them first like her mommy had always told her not to do, and yanked her glittery shirt from the spinner. It had been wet when Stella had put it on, and soapy which had made her smile: her mommy hated wet clothes.
When Stella had reached the kitchen, she had eaten two pop tarts, because her mommy had said that they were delicious but not nutritious, and never to take more than one, but as long as she had to wear babies and sunscreen, she was never going to do anything her mommy told her to do ever again (as long as her mommy wasn’t watching or else she would get in trouble).
Stella had also climbed ontop of the counter to reach the white-bread and taken three whole pieces to feed the duckies on the way to the coffee shop because her daddy had said always to help the homeless, but she had also said hello to Mr. Maroon who was outside mowing his grass because her mommy had said never to talk to grown-men by herself.
Stella Chamberlain wasn’t going to follow any more rules until she got sunblock with a big girl picture and five more weeks a year with her daddy and two pop tarts for breakfast every morning.
And even though her tummy hurt and she knew she really didn’t have any more room, it was only the thought of her mommy’s one-sweet-a-day rule that, morning after morning, prompted Stella to say
“One grand hot chocolate please.”
How many times will you have to tell the kid how to pronounce ‘grande’? As you squeeze three swirls of whipped cream on top of the Tiny Human’s steaming, muddy drink, you wonder what they’re teaching in school now-a-days.
“Miss Daily and my daddy tell me not to talk about people with dis abled and to not stare at them also, and she’s my favorite teacher so I have to do what she says.” Oh. Figures.
You narrow your eyes as the annoying Tiny Human pointedly turns her back on you, her gaze tracing the lines in the dim, off-white ceiling, her lids all sparkles and glitter. She reminds you of the girl on the bus and three blocks of lingering stares and humiliation, and life in a general, horrifying sense.
“But… well my mommy makes me wear sunblock with a baby and she tells me not to stare at people with dis abled too. And I’m not going to do anything she says ‘till she gets me big girl sunblock plus two pop tarts so...” Her plastic earrings catch the light as she spins back around to stare at you once again, her eyes trained pointedly on your right shoulder.
Something inside you snaps, something base and primal; you can’t deny the blaze of fury kindling in your chest.
The anger has colors: red and blue and yellow and green flames blooming behind your retinas with a thorny insistence you just can’t turn aside.
Your hand leaps forward, knocking aside her drink, the mulch-brown liquid spilling over her sneakers, frosty whipped-cream clinging to her nose.
“Ooops! My bad. I don’t know if your mommy or daddy or Miss Daily ever told you this, but people with ‘dis abled’ like me…well, we tend a little towards clumsiness.”
You give a rueful smile, offering your left hand. “That’ll be three twenty-five please.”
One crying Tiny Human, two ruined sneakers, fifteen cheap, paper-thin napkins, and four hours later, you gaze at the time in the bottom corner of JUMPING JAVA!’s crappy computer screen. Five, four, three, two…
1:10 turns to 1:11 and exactly six seconds later those obnoxious silver bells are ringing again. You pretend not to notice as the next Regular makes his purposeful way to the counter and the tapping begins. You don’t have to look further than the crisp, white cuffs of an immaculately ironed shirt to know who it is.
Stefan Altman couldn’t help the tapping. Five brief raps against the solid, grime-free dresser were clearly the only way to greet the day, closely followed by ten longer knocks against the bathroom sink, two seconds between each echo across the reflective, spotless tile floor. Fifteen hollow taps with the left, middle knuckle against the mahogany closet door, deep and polished, each note large and precise (if grating), paced sparingly at eleven seconds of intermediate silence.
And if he couldn’t help the tapping, Stefan Altman certainly couldn’t control the measurement habit. But honestly, who could? One and one-fourth cups of water immediately following seven-eighths of a bottle cap of Tide Peppermint mouthwash, gurgled for precisely forty-one seconds. One and three tenths Grade A, Large eggs scrambled with a gram of pepper and two grams of salt, and twenty-three two-centimeter dices of green onions baked for exactly twenty-two minutes and thirty-three seconds, beside one and two-fourths cups of two-percent milk.
There was the tapping, and there was the measuring, and then there was the placement issue. But Stefan couldn’t be blamed, could he? After all, was it completely unreasonable to expect the clock to hang three inches from the ceiling, the ‘twelve’ and ‘six’ directly above the third brown groove in the marble floor? For the keyboard to sit two, not three, inches from the curved end of a speckled gray desk, and three, not four, inches from the sharp edges of a wooden brown one? Such small, unobtrusive things.
That, Stefan Altman knew, was why he couldn’t stand the barista at the JUMPING JAVA!. Not because of the annoying lilt she had to her walk (though that certainly didn’t help), or because it took her three tries to get his telephone number into the system for his sixty-three cent discount every time, or even because she had only one arm and the missing limb made her appear lopsided, a reminder of the kitchen clock whenever his father came to visit, a brush from the gangly man’s hat skewing the ‘six’ several centimeters to the extreme left.
No; Stefan couldn’t stand the barista because, though he had been a regular customer for a year and six days now, she always forgot to keep the last cent in change and only give him twelve pennies back. Thirteen cents! Thirteen! How could she even think he would accept such an awkward (not to mention unlucky) number?
And was it really so hard to remember a triple shot caramel espresso after a year and six days? Truly?
Now Stefan did a double take as he took in his to-go cup, finally relishing his last tap on the (obviously poorly maintained) wooden floor. Could it be? Could it really be? Was that a trail of drizzled caramel, slowly (but very, very surely) making its fat, horrible way down the Styrofoam containing his morning coffee? Could his drink possibly be…
“Dripping? I don’t see anything.”
You fight the impulse to role your eyes at the immaculately clad customer before you. You’ve gotten more than just about sick of him by now: Altman and his churlish habits, that insufferable tapping sound, unreasonable demand after unreasonable demand.
You have at least thirty customers on a slow morning. You are flabbergasted daily by the sheer self-importance of some of the ridiculous patrons, expecting you to remember all their ludicrously specific orders.
Five years of working at JUMPING JAVA! and you have yet to find anything attractive about the pungent stench of coffee. Ten more years and you’re sure you still won’t.
Your sore shoulder aches with a purple pain as you slowly amble toward the other end of the counter, ripping a bunch of napkins from the holder before roughly shoving them in Altman’s direction.
Your sweet smile contrasts heavily with the sarcastic, meanly contrived words which spew almost of their own accord from your mouth. “There you are Mister Altman. Oh, by the way, we’re fresh out of Splenda, so I had to use the Sweet n’ Low instead. . . A did spill on the counter because I was in a rush though, morning crowd and all, you know, so it wasn’t exactly two packets.” Meaningful pause here, letting the full implications of what you’ve just said sink in before delivering the final blow.
“ Hope you don’t mind.”
Your cruel amusement at Altman’s answering gasp and the awkward twitch of his left eye is long gone, however, by the time you hear the last Regular panting her way through the doors of JUMPING JAVA! for a dessert coffee to the grand accompaniment of those grating silver bells.
Greta Stains hadn’t always been blonde, but she certainly had always been fat.
She wondered how she would finish her assigned article, Thirty Ways to Keep Your Man, with her journalistic integrity intact considering she had never, in fact, even been kissed, much less “kept” any man.
Greta had known the minute she had received the assignment the reason Bob had given it to her. There was an order in the world, she knew; there was a method to the madness of living. She may not have been sure about Dualism or Buddhism or Christianity, or whether Poodles or Labradors or what they were now calling Labradoodles were suited for working owners, or even which pastry to choose for breakfast that morning, but there was one thing Greta did know, and she knew it for certain: in the food chain of life, she was near rock bottom. And so she would defer, and she would work, and she wouldn’t complain. Journalistic integrity be damned: she would write the article, and she would write it well.
She remembered the summer of seventh grade, the sun so harsh and melting, watching the other girls parade down the beach in their thin, fitted swim-suits, all hips and half-smiles and hair tosses and laughter.
Those were the days when she hadn’t understood the inner workings of the universe. Those were the days when there had still been hope; hope of slimming down, hope of clear skin, hope of boys and kisses and marriage. Those were the days when she had gone people watching and wondered with the critical mind of an aspiring journalist: what was it, exactly which made a person beautiful?
She had been sure, initially, that it was something with the eyes, something with a soulful stare and wide set lids. And so she had observed, hunched quietly, unobtrusively, on the board-walk bench, every beautiful girl who happened by. She had studied the carefully applied eye-liner, the long sweeps of thick mascara, coloring even the blondest eyelashes black. She had watched the girls bat those very eyelashes at Ben Hayman and his enthusiastic responses; the slight tilt of his shoulders toward a flirtatious girl, the way his eyes had never seemed to remain trained on her face for more the twenty seconds before those baby-blues drifted downward...
And that, of course, had led her to breasts. It seemed that every notable girl, or at least every girl Ben Hayman deemed notable, was extremely well endowed, and unafraid to show it. Greta had memorized the plunging V’s of their bikini tops, boldly leaving so little to the imagination. She noticed the bright, floral patterns they sported, artfully drawing the eye to their strongest features…
And finally, of course the clear, glowing skin, tanned smoothly under the harsh heat of the summer sun. Day after endless day spent lazing by the poolside, talking to boys, laughing with boys, dating boys, kissing boys.
Greta couldn’t precisely say when she learned of her place in the world. It could have been after the months and months of diet and exercise (spoiled, of course, with all those late night pie runs), or following the seventh dermatology visit in as many months, finally accepting there just wasn’t any way to remove the pockmarks. Or maybe it was her first (and last) game of spin the bottle, an invitation to which had been pityingly secured from that girl Claire Hallward with the wide smile, the one where every single boy, without exception, had flat out refused to touch their mouths to hers.
But that didn’t matter now, Greta told herself, stepping up to the counter as she rooted through her expansive brown bag for her wallet. None of that mattered now. She knew her place, and so did everybody else, and she was going to drink her coffee and bluff her way through an article for the very first time.
She glanced at the one-armed barista, at the way she massaged her shoulder and winced in pain. Well, and if Greta was close to rock-bottom, at least she wasn’t that. She crinkled her nose and wondered, not for the first time, how a cripple could have gotten a job making coffee in the first place. And whether her disability also caused had long-term memory loss, because she could never seem to remember what Greta meant when she said
“I’ll have the usual.”
Unbelievable. Unbelievable. She can’t be effing serious!
You take your hand off your aching shoulder and stare at the mountainous woman before you, reeling at the audacity of such a request. Greta’s demand of her “usual” is nothing out of the ordinary, of course, but each evening, you are shocked anew.
“And your usual would be…?”
You watch annoyance contort her face while she sniffs and gives you her order.
“Three cinnamon mini-donuts, two slices of vanilla cream-cake, and a double-shot iced latte, extra whipped cream. Same as every other day.” You know her shortness has less to do with the fact that you never remember what she wants than the shame of saying such a greedy, pathetic dessert order aloud. Somehow though, even through the embarrassment, she still manages to keep hold of that disdainful, superior expression on the odd occasion she condescends a moment of eye-contact.
And just for that, just for her presumption and condescension and stubborn refusal to look your way for more than four seconds at a time you say, “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to speak up a bit. I can’t hear you very well over the machines.”
Actually the only machine running at the moment is the ice cooler which chills with a steady, unobtrusive thrum, and you have the momentary satisfaction of making the woman repeat her order, loudly enough that everyone in JUMPING JAVA stares.
You chuckle quietly at the angry clenching of her fists as she waits for you to fetch her donuts and coffee, dragging your feet at every opportunity, relishing your status of immunity in the workplace even when behaving so inappropriately.
But an hour later you have to face the bus-ride home and the empty apartment and your aching shoulder again. And you know you’ll do the same tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.
You spot the flirtatious man from this morning sitting across the aisle, and your stomach flutters a little for one, small, unchecked moment. But then your eyes rest on the cross-legged woman next to him, who offers him a reciprocated suggestive smile.
You know they will get off on the same stop, though most probably they live miles apart. And you know they will explore each other by dim candlelight until the early-morning hours, until recycled sunlight caresses their eyes awake. And while his left palm cups her soft, flawless cheekbones, yours will squeeze the place your right shoulder should be connected to a limb. You will be in pain and they will be in pleasure. And just like the bus-routes and the customers and the silver bells and the stench of coffee, you know it’ll all be the same again tomorrow.