There's not a lot action in a college campus coffee shop over the summer. You have your regulars: a mix of people in the community; students who didn't go home for the summer; and the bare bones of the university staff. You have your occasionals: the awkward teenagers "just checking it out", and their parents, who are eyeing you like you might give them some hint as to what this school does to its students. You have your flash-floods: the random cheer-leading or band camp- but, as the name implies, they arrive quickly en masse, and then retreat just as quickly into the rest of their summer, where the campus will become, at best, the barely-noticed setting for their awkward sexual-awakenings.
In other words, I spend a lot of time leaning on my broom. Especially when the manager's not around to chirp, "If there's time to lean, there's time to clean!". Clean, sure. But everything's so clean at this point that if I were to take a rag to anything it would be more like polishing. And "polishing" doesn't make a cute little rhyme, and so I continue to lean, and to observe.
This afternoon, one of the last before the freshman will descend for their orientation, I'm observing one of the regulars as she makes her way across the quad. I'm pretty sure she's one of the people-in-the-neighborhood, as it were, because she's about twenty years too old to be a student, but she sure as hell isn't a professor. (Hey, it's a small school- I know most of 'em by sight, even if I'm not in their classes.) She's particularly fascinating, because over the past couple of months I've watched her sort of... metamorphosize.
In the beginning she cried a lot. Like, a lot. But not really sad tears, you know? More like... really angry tears. Like crying was her substitute for stabbing. Which was crazy, because she was definitely not the stabbing sort, to look at her. I'm taking white capris and loose, flowy tunic tops. A bit of "statement" jewelry, and mousy-brown hair neatly pinned at the nape of her neck. Manicured nails, strappy-yet-conservative sandals. Very suburban-mom-of-teenagers, you know? Like she should definitely be drinking that nonfat vanilla latte shit. But she'd come in, get a shot-in-the-dark (black like your bitter heart, I always say), and then sit in the furthermost corner to drink and write in her journal. And cry.
As the weeks passed, the crying dried up, mostly. And she started wearing jeans and t-shirts. And not, like, perfectly-distressed $180 jeans, either. Thrift store jeans, and no more of that ludicrous statement jewelry, either. And a pair of shiny new dark green doc martens, which I complimented her on, because I know what a bitch they are to break in. She gave me this little smile, and for the first time ordered an americano to go with her journaling, which she moved to a couch to do.
That was her standing order for a few more weeks, until she cut her hair off- and I'm not talking your typical mom-cut, either. She cut it, like, aggressively short. The sort of short that you cut your hair to give a giant fuck-you to that guy who liked to talk about how feminine long hair is while eyeing another woman. And she dyed it burgundy, which, granted, is not the most rebellious of shades, in the grand scheme of things, but certainly edgier than a natural color, and I complimented her on that, too. She gave me a big smile, and ordered a cafe au lait. Sat right near the counter, too, and even made a little small talk with other patrons.
That was about two weeks ago, and now she's coming across the street, with this long, confident stride much better suited to those green docs, and I can't help but smile. Lady actually looks happy, for a change.
"Hi Jessi," she says as she walks in. Not sure when she learned my name, exactly. Hers is Karen.
"Hey Karen," I say, and I'm about to ask if it'll be the regular when I notice something.
"New ink?" I ask, nodding to her shoulder. There, peeping out from beneath her black tank top, I can see a bit of dark green script with that shiny look that only fresh tattoos have.
She grins. Actually grins.
"Just got it yesterday," she says, and pulls the strap aside so I can see the whole thing. It's her handwriting (after months of seeing her journal, I'd recognize it anywhere) right under her collarbone, right above her heart. And it's just three words:
Drink to This
"Nice," I say. "And just what, exactly, will you be drinking while you drink to this? Cafe au lait?"
She shakes her head. "I think it's time to change it up again. I want to try something totally different." She tugs her hair nervously. "What do you suggest?"
"Totally different, eh?" I look her up and down, considering. "Given your history, I'm gonna' rule out everything with coffee, then."
"Okay," she nods. "No coffee. But I still need my caffeine, so..."
"London Fog," I say. "Totally different, still caffeinated. You'll love it."
Another grin. "I'll drink to that."
A recently divorced woman got these three words tattooed on her clavicle.