In Front of Me This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

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     My Saturday mornings weren't the same anymore. A different breeze tickled my nape and a clearer blue sky hung overhead. Bustling people and early shoppers passed through, barely buying anything. They all seemed focused, motivated, to wake up two hours too early on their Saturday and go for a stroll down the tree-lined sidewalks, sprouting fresh flora, ending up at the 24-hour Malibu restaurant where a banana was offered with every meal. Here they ordered coffee, hoping to enjoy it away from their claustrophobic kitchens. The sun rose above a horizon created not by the earth's curve but by the three-story brick apartment from which they awoke.

It was then that I knew, so early in my experience, that I wanted to be like them, to live their vital lives and go on their straining jogs. This was the average life of a Chicago native, driven by the busy city and often stopped by their own curiosity. It was only moments after my first day working as a flower market manager at Belmont and Broadway, a busy intersection populated by the best city folk, that I realized their lives totally contrasted mine in the far-off countryside, and had much more importance.

By the middle of the day, everyone carried Abercrombie and Fitch bags and countless Mini Coopers rolled by, honking at every obstruction. An ancient but still operational school, a convenience mart and a corner gym, treadmills lining the windows just so, finished up the city block, creating a civilization that provided few problems, fewer solutions, but always something interesting to watch.

Week after week, their routines became more apparent, and by the end of each day I was tired, my feet stressed, and my hands rose bitten. Before I left this world and went home to a place that was becoming more and more wrong for me, I always made one last trip to soothe the day's tiny pains.

The Caribou Coffeehouse was always packed with people who thought they needed to write their college essay on a laptop here. The coffee shop drew me, and I suddenly wanted to be those guys, sipping a latte and writing reports on "The Statistical Forces That Make Our Government Act the Way It Does." These people were the epitome of what I thought was cool, and important to society. Standing in line, I read the menu acting like I was a coffee connoisseur, except I wasn't. Was it because of where I was from? If I lived here, I would know what a Mint Condition was.

When I finally reached the counter, the server, Johnny (I learned from his name tag) acted as if I had known him forever and was my best friend. He talked so casually, not using the thank yous or pleases that they try to teach at McDonald's or in the warm-hearted country. Not only was I Johnny's (who was either Australian or did a real good accent) best friend, but so were his co-workers.

There was one named Jinni who had owl glasses with rings covering her ears. Her hair was awkwardly short, probably one of those expensive cuts that only costs that much because they are "styled." I didn't like it. It was ugly and too short. But maybe it was the best haircut. I wouldn't know and shouldn't judge. I haven't been one of them long enough. Jinni started a brief conversation, as a friend would. She spoke diligently, full of excitement, and was interested in what I had to say. Then the next customer stole her, and our conversation ended.

As I stood there waiting for my $5 coffee, the Aussie broke into a little tune - a familiar song from the '90s. By the time he became loud enough for others to hear, one verse had already finished. Jinni joined in and finished the next verse for him. And then, almost as if planned, the couple began a duet and dance, never making eye contact or turning away from their work. There was so much unromantic chemistry, a relationship ruled by spontaneity. I wanted to chime in too, and become part of something that seemed unordinary, but totally enthralling to be part of.

These people didn't need rules. They just wanted to live. The song was interrupted by my order: one Mint Condition. I ruined it for everyone. I grabbed my drink and started toward the door. Johnny was sure to say, "Talk to you later" without even knowing if he ever would. It wasn't until I got outside that I realized what I ordered was not a cold drink as I had expected.

I went home anticipating the weekend and my next encounter with everything I felt I needed to be part of.

The classrooms back at school seemed dull, and the people unknown and boring. There was no bubbling fountain of youth, no differentiation in living, no hysterical blindness and no desire to live. By Thursday, I was counting down the hours. I remember when my real friends would ask if I had to go to work again, giving hints that they missed me Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. I would always respond with a yes, but diluted it by saying I never really wanted to, hoping they wouldn't notice my yearning for a more invigorating life.

One Friday, hours before my weekly sojourn, a familiar tune that brought the smell of coffee back to my nose wormed into my head. I was walking to my locker with a friend when I decided to blurt out the notes. I finished one verse, and then my friend wholeheartedly chimed in! We ended up singing a duet. She knew every word. I couldn't believe it. There was no way she knew the song. I flashed back to the Gap-wearing, Prada-carrying, Lexus-driving people of the city and realized I was fooling myself. Everything I wanted and needed was right here, in this funny place called home.

I didn't need the Malibu or Abercrombie and Fitch to fit in and be part of something. No five-dollar coffees and definitely no expensive haircuts could satisfy me. No health-club memberships or Mini Coopers were needed to live spontaneously. My friends, family and life; it's all here in this little town. It's all home.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the November 2004 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.






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