This is a story that has been rolling around in my head for a long time. Or rather, the longer story that this is the beginning of has been in there. I might continue this if it strikes me. I wrote it by hand in a green notebook during a period where I had nothing to do but wait, which is probably why it happened at all.
The Impossible Au Lait Incident
The most impossible thing about what I labelled in my daily journal as The Impossible Au Lait Incident was that I didn’t notice her. No one did. Oh, they noticed her in the absent way you notice other people on the bus. Enough not to walk into her. But she didn’t stand out. No one gawped at the giant metallic gold dreadlocks, the cascades of colored pearls that hung down to her knees. Or those impossible eyes.
I wouldn’t have noticed her at all if not for a specific combination of words, delivered for exactly the wrong reason. It was Monday morning, and I was as awake as that implies. I sat at the counter, flipping through the news stories on my phone’s RSS app without really reading them. I was impatient to get my coffee, and so I couldn’t pay attention to what I was reading. I was only reading so I could ignore the fact that I was impatient to get my coffee.
If I had been functionally awake the paradox might have bugged me. I might have noticed the world around me as something other than zombie drones whose only function in life was to crowd my coffee shop and prevent my caffeination. I might have had the perceptual faculties to read, or to focus on something other than my impending latte. I might even have noticed her. But somehow I don’t think so.
“Peruvian roast raspberry au lait, 190 degrees, no sleeve.” There is was. The beautiful voice of the barista, uttering the only words I currently had the capacity to care about. I bolted up from my chair and marched towards the counter to get my drink.
I reached out to grab the cup, but another hand beat me to it. I watched dark fingers close around the vessel that held my liquid salvation.
“Sorry,” said a female voice. “But this one’s mine.” It sounded like dark chocolate dancing the Riverdance.
I turned and stared at the owner of that voice. The panic I felt about my coffee fled at the sight of the strangest person I had ever seen. If a bookie had popped out from behind the raw sugar at that moment, I would have bet a lot of money that this was the strangest person anyone had ever seen.
“Excuse me?” I said. Because I didn’t have anything useful or interesting to say.
“This is my drink,” she said. She smiled, and her eyes flashed. That’s not a metaphor. She had bright purple irises, and for a moment they glowed like violet cat’s eyes in the dark.
I stared at her for a long moment.
“It’s okay to stare,” she said. “I know how this looks.” She indicated her strange attire. “I mean, no one listens to Soundgarden anymore.”
I wrenched my eyes from their paralytic position and looked away from her face at the rest of her. Sure enough, just visible under what must have been a dozen 6 foot long strings of pearls was a Soundgarden t-shirt, from the Ultramega Okay tour.
All of this overwhelmed me so much that it seemed to knock my brain into a different gear.
“That’s my drink!” I blurted out.
She smiled still wider and shook her head.
“It’s really not. We ordered the same thing. Only I was first.”
I shook my head. “That’s impossible. No one else orders that.”
She laughed. I suppose it was a musical laugh, but I’ve never heard that kind of music.
“It’s not impossible,” she said. “It’s just new.”
I blinked. It was a surprisingly intelligent response given my mental state.
“You look like you have good taste in coffee,” she said. “ The way you glanced at the baristas but not the menu when you walked in. The contented sigh you let out when you scented the specific roasts in the air. So I thought I’d borrow it.”
“Your taste.” She picked up her cup and pulled off the lid, just like I would have done. “Am I going to be disappointed?”
“It’s very hot,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can take it.”
It was true. I think you can really taste the nuances of the roast at high temperatures, but most people’s mouths are too sensitive. I had no such problem. My grandmother believed tea should be drank just off the boil and her children were damn sure going to learn to appreciate that. But what did that have to do with this strange woman?
I watched as she took a sip. She closed her eyes and her face melted into contentment. Was that what I looked like when I took my first sip?
“I chose well,” said the woman. “This is wonderful.” She raised her cup to me as if in salute. “Much obliged.” Then she turned and began to walk away.
“Wait!” I called after her.
She swivelled to face me and raised a golden eyebrow. Set against her dark skin that eyebrow seemed to raise a mile into the air. It just kept going.
I froze. I had no idea what to say. I had no idea why I called after her. A moment earlier it seemed like the most important thing in the world. Like we weren’t done. There was something I was supposed to ask her. Something I was supposed to say. But I didn’t begin to understand what it was.
“Next time,” she said.
What did that mean? I opened my mouth to ask her, but then I heard a voice. It came from behind me, and it spoke a very specific combination of words.
“Peruvian roast raspberry au lait, 190 degrees, no sleeve.”
I turned and saw the barista place my coffee on the counter. All of a sudden I could remember the strange woman ordering my coffee drink, three places ahead of me in line. Why hadn’t it struck me as strange? I heard the words. I saw the whole incident, and I understood it. But I hadn’t. Not really.
I picked my cup up from the counter and felt the comfortingly excessive heat burn my fingers. It was like Excalibur. Too hot even for the baristas to handle without a bar towel or a coffee sleeve. The heat made it delicious, but it also made it special. No one could drink it but me. Me and her, now.
I lifted it to my lips and took a long, slow sip. The scalding liquid trickled down my throat. I closed my eyes and sighed.
It wasn’t until I walked over to my table and had a few more sips that I put the coffee down and noticed the name written on the cup.
Most definitely not my name. She had ordered first. I was sure of that. But still, somehow, she really had taken my cup of coffee. Or, just maybe, I had taken hers.