Writing for me is a form of exploration. Like Sylvia Plath* I want to be everyone, from a postman to the Pope, so I can better understand the world we have made for ourselves, and then write about it. In the absence of a technology that allows me to inhabit the minds and bodies of other people, I need to use my imagination. But how does one become someone else for the purposes of a story (or poem)?
I’ve yet to find the answer to that, though I suspect, like most things, it comes down to practise and hard work. For this week’s story I have attempted to become a man in the throes of a mini crisis. I’m not sure I pulled it off to be honest, and it definitely needs more work, but here it is anyway. What do you understand his crisis to be?
Double Strength Drip
I brace myself and open the door to Cozy Joe’s. She sees me and looks back towards the kitchen for help. But there’s no one else around so she has no choice but to serve me, though it will be some time before I get there. The place is jumping, she should have help, that’s what I told her Monday and I meant it; where the hell’s Joe during the morning rush? But I didn’t intend to brush the back of her hand as she gave me my change, I just wasn’t quick enough at getting my hand out of the way. Does she think that meant something? It meant nothing. Yesterday she was cold, no eye contact, I had the correct change and dropped it in her hand from as far away as I could. Now, as my position in the queue inches closer to the counter I can see her start to panic. Her eyes keep flicking towards me but veering off and back round to her task, she drops a spoon. I make her panic! She’s just a kid, no older than Maisie. All I want from her is my morning coffee. She’s looking around for Joe again, or some invisible colleague. Inch, inch; now there’s only one woman ahead of me at the counter. She wants a caramel latte to go and, oh, a muffin, no not chocolate, blueberry, just this once. The girl joins in the pretence that it is indeed just once and that it can’t do any harm; they both laugh and I resist the urge to join in the joke by pretending to examine the biscotti.
She puts the muffin in one of the eco-friendly bags that look is if they’re made from oat bran, and puts it in front of the woman along with the latte. She flicks a worried glance in my direction as she says: ‘seven twenty.’ The woman fumbles in her bag for her purse. Why do women never have their purses ready, they must know they’ll need to pay? I have the correct money already in my sweating palm, I wipe it on the inside of my jacket, it really is hot in here today. The woman is still rummaging in her enormous handbag. The girl looks at the counter top, a smile fixed on her face. A smile I know will evaporate when she turns to me and says; ‘sir?’ as if I’m a total stranger.
I’ve been coming here for my morning brew at exactly the same time for four years, and have generally had pretty good banter with the staff. It’s not always been this girl, of course, she’s only been here about a month and a half, long enough to have got to know me. The last kid used to have my order ready before I got to him, he knew me that well. And the woman before, too, did’t have to ask after about a week. But not this girl; she’s efficient, but she doesn’t want me to hope she’s even noticed me. It doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind I want nothing more from her than a double strength drip. Maybe she gets hit on a lot, she isn’t exactly ugly.
About five eight; a waist the size of my ankle; hair the colour of expensive leather, and tiny teeth whiter than the moon. But I’m not one of those guys; she’s younger than my own kid for christ’s sake; I need more than glowing youth from a woman. I’m not saying glowing youth isn’t attractive, it’s just not enough. Actually it can be slightly repellent, like too much sugar. There was a time, but that time’s gone. Just like I’m never tempted to roll a piece of ice cold butter in the sugar bowl, and let it melt on my tongue, as I did as a child, I’m not tempted by cute freckles on a plane-smooth cheek. It would be like taking home a Ming vase and putting a supermarket mixed bunch in it.
The woman has found her purse, she pulls out her credit card and the smile on the girl’s face relaxes as the transaction completes. But as she watches the woman pick up her purchases she remembers I’m next in line and looks one last time for Joe, then freezes. I nearly turn and run out the door, search for an alternative coffee shop, but that would only bring further unwanted attention. I don’t want to be the guy who waited patiently for twenty minutes only to run off just as his turn came, so I brace myself and look right at her for the first time since I got here.
‘Hi,’ she says, ’double strength drip, no pastries right?’
*Plath wrote this in her journal, and I remember reading it and thinking, ‘yes!’