I want to start off by apologizing. I never asked what your name was, even though you asked for mine, so for the longest time I tried to guess. I settled on Steve. You kind of looked like a Steve, but Paul is a nice name too. I only know your real name because one day during my senior year of high school, while I was sitting in one of the purple velvet chairs and eavesdropping on your conversation, pretending to do homework, I heard your co-barista call you Paul. I also heard you’re studying business. I personally think that sounds horrifically boring, but I admire your ambition.
More than that, though, I want to thank you. You weren’t the first barista to tell me It’s on the house: your friend, another dark-haired, brooding young man, sauntered up to my table one night during my junior year while I was doing pre-calculus homework. He set a plate of banana bread in front of me, told me he thought I deserved it, I looked like I was working hard. A few months later, though, he was gone. I’m assuming he’s in the army, somewhere overseas now, because one time he told me about his boot camp training. Or maybe he got fired for giving away so many free things, but I try not to think about that.
You, though. You were always there. Whenever I walked through the door and we saw each other the most genuine smile would spread across your face, and you’d always try to make sure you were the one serving me by the time I got to the front of the line, instead of that sassy-looking girl with the black hair and the bandana. She seemed cool and all, but you would ask me how my day went, where I was headed, then you’d say Don’t worry about it when I tried to hand you my debit card. You sympathized when I told you I was on my way to work at my shitty supermarket job, and congratulated me when I got a newer, cooler job in the mall. It actually wasn’t much cooler, and you probably knew that, but you were nice about it anyway.
I guess you were flirting with me or something, but you never asked for my number. Though one time you did invite me to come to the store later that night for a surprise party for one of the other employees. I had to work, though, and also I just thought it was kind of strange to be invited to an in-store birthday party by a barista whose name I didn’t know. Looking back, I wish I had attempted to get to know you better, but I think I was intentionally (albeit subconsciously) keeping you at arm’s length. I’ve always liked having brief, interesting encounters with strangers, and here was one I could revisit a few times a week. You were a spot of hope when my life consisted of trying to get through high school without becoming cynical and hating everyone. Strangers were my sanctuary. Plus, you made me feel pretty even when I came to Starbucks right after track practice, hair in a ponytail, covered in sweat. Also, you saved me a lot of money.
I don’t frequent your Starbucks anymore. I live three hours away now, at college, and my frequent coffee shop visits happen because I, too, now work behind the counter as a latte slave. If I do treat myself and go to another café, it’s an independently owned shop with lots of gluten-free, vegan desserts and ultra-hip, unfriendly baristas. It’s alright, I guess, but I miss you. I’ve seen you once or twice when I’ve been at home over break, reuniting with old friends in our former haunt, but it’s not the same between us. Our schedules used to line up: I’d know when you were working, drop in and say hi and pick up my coffee (for free, of course…hey, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do in this economy). Now I walk in to see a slew of new faces, try to hide my disappointment as I hand over my money to the stranger behind the counter. You walk in maybe a half hour later, when I am already seated at a table with a friend. We both notice each other; it’s obvious. Neither of us knows where to go from here, so we say nothing.
I’m going back home for break again soon. Maybe we’ll get reacquainted. I’ll tell you about how I’m doing up at school, what I’m studying, how long the winters are. Maybe you’ll have your business degree by then. If you’re still there, I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee.
Alicia Tatone is a graphic design student who enjoys coffee and men with beards. She may be contacted at email@example.com