Asymptotes

by Gregory J. M. Kasunich

Three more people.

Three more people until the counter.

That’s it.

Three.

Soy latte, decaf mocha, and a double shot with soymilk, then her. Who orders a decaf in the morning? Every morning, same thing. I’ve got them pinned down, memorized. It’s like clockwork, each saggy-eyed businessman or woman encased in a suit. Each neo-hippy-hipster. Each purse-toting toddler-juggling soccer mom. All cogs in the clockwork of the morning. Every Tuesday, muffin lady, orders five, eats them all. Wednesdays are busy, so are Mondays.

Fridays not so much.

I know the interns with temporary ink tattoos covering their hands consisting of compendiums of the higher-ups coffee orders. I know the gossip, the cell phone conversations…

The smell of her hair.

Even from behind the counter I would catch the scent of sweet Kona rain each time she flicked her locks and sent a fragrant breeze past my nose.

I know her.

Over the grumble of the bean grinders and milk frothers I can hear her voice flowing like cream, taking off the bitterness of the morning.

It’s no stretch to say I’m an addict. Addicted to Americas drug of choice. Not when I first stumbled in, no, not at all. Hated it. The smell of it. The taste of it, the aftertaste. I hated coffee, but loved coffee cake. Ironic. But when she moved over to manning the Bunn-O-Matic I ventured into unknown territory, just to glimpse her. No more “just coffee cake”, now I needed the hard stuff.  In the beginning I took a little coffee with my cream and sugar, but now I drink it black. Not even biscotti to sweeten the brew. I’m not here for the coffee. I’m here for her.

Beneath the over-sized polo and frumpy apron, the contours of her shapely body can be made out as she slides across the floor to snag a recycled plastic cup for a large mint cappuccino or bends at the hip to scoop chunks of ice for a blended frozen banana mocha.

I know her.

The first few times I attempted a verbal “hello” or “hey” or “hi” or “what’s up” I ended up with an awkward smile and nod as I shuffled away juggling the latte between my hands, the heat from inside my paper cup finding its way through the cardboard insulator and melting my fingerprints.

The first day I stopped in, the day she wore her “trainee” badge like a purple heart, awarded for the multitude of scalds and stains that peppered her vanilla skin, I came in for a pick me up. I must have looked lost because she asked if I was and I shook my head “no” as I refrained from eye contact and studied the Italian sounding made-up English words that named the sugar syrup coffee combinations. Truth is, I had lost something, or at least someone.

A girl

A girlfriend.

A girlfriend of three years.

Not lost as in misplaced, but lost as in went-to-Paris-on-a-fashion-design-internship-and-met-a-metro-sexual-pretty-boy-named-Stefan-and-decided-to-not-come-back kind of lost. It’s better. Since that first day, otherwise I might not have noticed her.

Two.

Two more people until the counter.

That’s it, two.

She’ll have it ready, the usual, she knows me. Funny how days become weeks and the months and then its been a year since you’ve been going to the same coffee shop on the corner of 3rd and Penn and ordering a large house blend with a shot of espresso not being able to remember much before that first day when she wore the trainee badge like a purple heart.

So many chances I had to speak up. The first words I uttered to her she never heard, but the next time I spoke, more than to place my order, she laughed. I said, “you moved up the ranks, no more trainee.”

“Hah, yeah, on my way to a real career here. Vanilla latte right?”

“Yeah, with the uh…”

“Whipped cream.” She finished my sentence.

She was quick, quick on her feet. As my order evolved so did she. Always on top of the changes. Always with a smile, even when things weren’t going so well. I could tell.

Then there was that time. The time the shop was empty except us. I stood there with a coffee stained smile inches from her face as she placed my cup on the counter. I stood there lost in her hazelnut eyes, separated only by the vapors of steamed milk pillaring up from my cappuccino and with the faintest lean forward I could have kissed her. I could have employed less than three muscles to show her how I felt, to tell her everything that my words had failed to so many times before.

I didn’t

I couldn’t

I regret it.

In that moment, if nothing else, I would have known, known the answer to the only question that occupied my mind for the last year.

Even now, while I wait, I’ve already had a cup. Drank it on the way here and dropped the evidence in a trash bin. I try not to stare.  She catches me and sends me a smile, and when she does my stomach jumps and quickly cartwheels. It’s her only smile of the morning, her only genuine smile, saved for me, her break in the rush. She called me her one-minute vacation as the throngs of addicts and bagel eaters push their way to the counter.

She passes me as she bounces off the counter delivering the decaf mocha and passes me a look that silently asks “who orders a decaf in the morning?” And while my stomach engages in gymnastics for the second time we share a soundless laugh through our knowing half-smiles.

This is it.

This is where my palms sweat

This is where my palms sweat and my caffeine-injected heart sputters Morris code through my body telling me to tell her. Bum-da-bum-bum. Bum-bum-da-da-bum. Telling me to do… something. I know I have to, I know I can only take so much; I can only have so much restraint. I know her.

I know her, I know how she loves watermelon bubblegum, pack a day, folds the wrappers into little origami animals. I have some of those animals, small tokens of friendship, gratitude, I don’t know, but I have them, all saved in a box at home, all still emitting the subtle sent of sugar coated watermelons. I know about her dog, a boxer named Jackson, like Pollok, not Samuel L. She tells me these things and I listen, we know each other.

The woman with the tote bag large enough to smuggle a body steps up and greedily snags her hot mocha and then scuttles off to the corner of the shop to laugh loudly as she pretends to understand the comics in the New Yorker she holds open in her hands. The line shrinks up leaving only one person between her and me.

Just a double-shot with soymilk.

One more.

That’s it.

One.

We tell each other these things in short semi shouted sentences over the whirl of the ice blenders and hum of the microwaves. Every day building more and more towards a complete conversation. My hands jitter and taps out syncopated rhythms on my jeans and all at once I realize I have to pee.

My heart beats faster, and the coffee makes me dizzy as I remember when I bought her that card. A simple card with the picture of an old man on it and a simple message inside with simple wording asking if perhaps she would like to go out sometime that I simply did not give to her.

Everyday I know I’m going to reach into my pocket smile and slide the card across the stained counter and watch as she picks it up and smiles when she knows how long I’ve wanted to ask her and leaps over the counter and kisses me sweetly on the cheek. Everyday when my hand escapes my pocket it only brings two crumpled dollars and thirty-five cents for my cup of joe. Maybe today, maybe.

Then something different. Glen, her the middle-aged manager pulls her aside as the espresso brews. He shakes her hand and she gives his a friendly hug. I lip read “good luck, we will miss you” and my heart sinks.

What?

She loosens her apron and takes off her coffee caps and steps aside to brush off her clothing. And I remember, the four-sentence conversation about an internship. A paid internship and a reason to leave this place. And I know its coming to an end. I finger the edges of the card I never gave her and watch in slow motion as she removes her name tag from her apron. Glen hands off the Double-shot with soymilk and I’m up. With a toothy grin he asks if he can help me. Can he help me? What can I do? Do I stand here and watch as she retreats? I look to Glen then to her and I know what I have to do but my mouth is dry and the words are lodged in my throat. Everything is slow and Glen is waiting and the line behind me grows longer and longer with angry faces just waiting for me to place my order and all I can do is watch her leave and she disappears behind the double swinging back doors and is

Gone.

“Can I help you sir? Do you need a moment to decide? Sir?” Glen continues to inquire and I’m numb. “He gets a black coffee for god sakes!” a patron shouts behind me and Glen shuffles off to the carafe and spouts a black coffee off into a 60% post consumer content cup and I’m still numb, my heart in my mouth, just looking at the door the girl I would have loved just walked through. And all of a sudden I’m holding my coffee knowing that I let this, this possibility slip away. I pull the card from my pocket and drop it into the trash with my coffee and turn for the door and slink outside into the early morning sun and I hear “Hey!”

I continue to walk until I catch the sweet smell of melon.

“Hey!” and I turn around. There on the street she is standing in front of me, transformed from a barista to a beauty, munching on a piece of watermelon gum. Everything in my body ceases to function and my legs are glued to the pavement.

“Today’s my last day, I thought I might not catch you before I left.” She smiles and I melt. She looks at the ground and bites her lip the way I love. “I, uh, I wanted to give you something, I don’t know, for always helping me through the day.”

She holds out her hand, I reach up and she drops her war torn nametag into my palm. I look up and smile.

“Look me up when you get a chance” she says, and with a smile adds “maybe we can get a coffee sometime.”

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