You smell like the perfume department of a Nordstrom; that is to say, like my grandfather. When you talk to me, you put a quavering hand on my shoulder and your breath whistles through your teeth, but I can hear the guile of intention in your voice, see the candy sparkle in your eyes. You are educated and rich, and I’m just something you can sharpen you creaky teeth on, roll around your mouth to test the flavor.
You’re too beautiful to be serving coffee, you say to me. You should be modeling on Fifth Avenue. You talk politics with my coworker, and when I try to offer an opinion, you cut me off. You’re too pretty to worry about these things. You look at my coworker for affirmation, and I’ve never seen a dude look more uncomfortable in my life.
To my boss — older than me and more worn — you say, isn’t it about time you got a real job?
My boss is a warrior woman; she stays and she fights with her laughter and her nods and her have a good day sir. Everything she’s lived through enfolds her. I see the armor painted on her shoulders like tattoos. This is nothing.
I’m not a warrior. I’ve never been. I hide in the back when I see you coming. I’m making friends with the dishwasher.
You mean well. Or I hope you do. Maybe you don’t mean anything at all — all intention has been bubble-wrapped in your anxiety.
Is the coffee organic? Do you have non-dairy creamer? Is the almond milk unsweetened? Oh, God, please don’t tell me it’s sweetened. No! Don’t put the thermometer in the milk when you steam it! It’ll make it taste like metal. SPLENDA! I can’t believe you guys have Splenda! Do you have any idea what it’s made of? It will give you cancer. So much cancer.
You can’t find the napkins and you say it’s because the dispenser is too small and you don’t believe me when I tell you that we clean the espresso machine every day. You need me to walk you to the bathroom because you got lost on the way, but it isn’t your fault! You need me to know that it isn’t your fault, none of this is your fault. I want to mock you, but I can’t, because I remember anxiety and I remember the way it ate holes in the back of my brain, but I still sigh when you knock all the creamers and sugar shakers over with your purse. You say it’s an accident (not your fault) but I’m suspicious, because an entire box of Splenda ends up knocked into the garbage can.
With you I play my favorite game: ‘is he flirting with me or is he just southern?’ Because you smile, but you are also beautiful, and smiles formed with beautiful mouths taste like lies. I feel stripped by beauty, skin uncovered and cracking beneath the sun.
Beauty is a weapon, but it’s not one I’ve ever learned to wield. I’ve had it put in my hand, my grip corrected. I’ve seen demonstrations and expos. I can take beauty apart and clean all the parts and put it back together, but I don’t know how to use it. I’ve tried to teach myself with YouTube videos and repeated happy smiles in the mirror, but I know I’m beautiful the same way I know I have a liver. It’s there — I know it’s there — but I can’t feel it functioning.
(And this is not really about you, it’s about me, but with you it’s always about me. You are object, I am subject — observed, meet observer. I watch you watch me, the same way I know you watch hundreds of girls, thousands of girls all riveted in your gaze, and I’m just one barista with cynical circles under her eyes, whose heartbeat spiked once when you grinned at me.)
I’ve only seen you once or twice, but the magenta bike helmet makes you recognizable. You are breathlessly excited when I tell you we have coconut milk, and we talk about the weather, because that is the first thing you talk about with strangers. Later it will be bike accidents, lopsided cakes, and the way fennel smells like licorice only not. With you I play my other favorite game — is she a little bit gay, or is it just me?
I have spent so many hours standing awkwardly while customers watch me work for them, the espresso machine between us somehow making it socially acceptable to stare. With you, I don’t mind. I don’t mind when you move several steps to your left so you can watch my hands while I steam the milk and spill coffee grounds across the counter. You tell me your name and I actually remember it, and this wasn’t supposed to be a love letter or a Craigslist “I saw you” ad, but whatever.
You are a generation — the one that constantly rolls their eyes at mine, us with our iPhones and promiscuity, our gender fuckery and selfie-olympics.
You are a kaleidoscope of pursed lips and raised eyebrows, flared nostrils, pinched foreheads. You are the sinking feeling in my stomach when I see a designer handbag or acrylic nails, a striped tie, a golfing jacket. I see you sneer at my dyed hair and bare legs, I see the self-important irritation when I tell you no, sir, I can’t cut that cake for you right now, because we closed fifteen minutes ago, and you and your full cart are the reason the cashiers won’t get home until midnight. I hear your aggravated sigh when I stop making your drink to deal with the burn I gave myself with the espresso machine, as you turn to your friend and ask, is this girl new? No ma’am, not new, just clumsy today. Also, I understand English and enjoy full use of my hearing and reasoning faculties. They’re not affected by a blister on my hand.
Sometimes I wonder how the six of us would get along without the counter between us, without this virtual-reality land of aisles and two-for-one sales and jerk-offs who grab things out of the salad bar with their bare hands. I wouldn’t be immediately suspicious of your intentions; there would be no chain around my neck for you to jerk. I would be Person, and you would be Person, and the only ground between us would be common. Of course, then I would find somewhere else to work, and you would find another shop-girl, and it would all begin again.