This is the profile of two coffee girls, an original named Sallie–and me. Sallie, according to her own bio, has worked at “nearly every cafe in nearly every town [she’s] ever lived in.” By contrast, I spent a few years of my early adulthood working in espresso shops and have spent the last seventeen on the customer side of the counter. At heart, I was a drop-in, a drive-by, an observer of the culture and a confidante to those involved in it–a Nick Carraway, although, admittedly, coffee brewers haven’t yet gone underground. Those selling it aren’t yet gaining the world through riches and, consequently, falling into deep depravity. My friends from Oregon, however, still call me and feed my soul with shocking stories before asking me what’s happening with my life. The ensuing silence over the waves speaks for itself. Nothing is happening with my life because I block out drama by living a small, hermit-like existence in the desert.
When Sallie calls, the conversation differs from the preceding model because Sallie is different to the rest. She embodies the mirror aspect of my soul. She shakes with vibrancy, creativity, exuberance. She loves deeply and enthusiastically. She dances tango and appreciates fine foodstuffs arranged artfully on plates. By contrast, as an observer, I’m impatient by any part of life that jerks me from my sideline stance and throws me into an actual, living scene. Here’s an example of what I mean: One night, after I had worked the closing shift at the Medford Coffee Company, Sallie and I and a few others jetted to a midnight party at a house belonging to strangers. Sallie was house-sitting, and so we dropped into an atmosphere of hominess that didn’t belong to any of us. We were aliens in a foreign land of refrigerator magnets and all the sights and smells of young children and pets. For Sallie, this meant space to create a feast. For me, at that late hour, this meant intense irritation. I hated the hominess. I was hungry. It was late. I wanted to eat, watch a movie, go home and fall into bed. But to Sallie, food could never be simply food, especially when its creation brought her closer to her friends. We argued about whether we should bother chopping fresh garlic and onions for whatever pasta dish we were making. I didn’t want to bother with gourmet; she refused to compromise on quality. She won. She made the food from fresh, whole ingredients and it took longer to cook and, somehow, I survived by watching her from the sidelines. More important, I lived to tell of it and was, undoubtedly, nurtured by her food.
When Sallie calls, we discuss our late-in-life plunges into academia. Ten years ago, I took the plunge to finish my college degree. I finished what I’d started–an education in English/Creative Writing and Spanish. More recently, Sallie has done the same. She’s currently in a creative writing program at the University of Oregon and, from what I understand, she’s also taking business classes. Her status updates on Facebook also tell me she’s studying Italian. Sallie knows what she wants. She may have subverted it for a number of years while she gave birth to her children, but she’s allowed herself to resurface. Through it all, she works at one cafe or another–and some of these places are tired, soulless delivery centers for caffeine. And others are the real deal, the beating hearts of coffee-land–the kind of place Sallie will own for herself one day.
When Sallie calls, we both speak, heart-to-heart, about the soul aspect of the universe. Words take a cosmic turn when the conversation is between the two of us, no one else around to turn it into banality. Sallie possesses what I lack, and, I suspect, the vice versa is true as well. She emotes outwardly–I shrink inwardly. She captures a full spectrum of emotions, while I know only of the domino effect caused by my inability to cope with frustration–>irritation–>anger. Over the phone, both of us with our coffee, but hundreds of miles distant, we fill each other’s cups. In Sallie’s eyes, I’m the opposite of myself, the impossible ideal–an artist and poet. In my eyes, Sallie is not just an artist, but a business woman who is creative enough to bring all her ideas to fruition.
Despite my forays in the academic world, and despite my too infrequent conversations with Sallie, I have a decided lack of knowing what I want. This is, ultimately, the biggest contrast between me and Sallie. After having children, the essence of who I was remained hidden, buried under fears. I was a fiction writer! That was who I was. I could shout it from the Cascades, hear my own voice delivering the dictate, and I couldn’t make it true. Anybody might have confused my intensity of focus on one object–fiction–as an instance of she doth declare herself with too much force. And anybody might have concluded that I spoke lies from the deepest, most sincere part of my being. But nobody did until recently. And, now, when I think about Sallie, as she struggles forward through the river–nay, ocean–of fiction writing, I envision her success. I consider the turning of my own dreams and how close I am to the age of forty, and I understand this to be part of the portrait of coffee girls. We grow up, we have children, and, yet, we never stop thriving. We have coffee to brace our backbones, to keep us young and fit and full of dreams.
Coffee is the fluid of dreams, just as dreams are as fluid as night. And do you want to know what I dream of these days? I dream of being a science writer, or of not being a writer at all, but a person who researches for a living, or a person who creates tangible things. I don’t know how any of these dreams will come to pass, and still I imagine them, and I imagine taking a break from life at Sallie’s future coffeehouse and reading her published novels that I’ve just bought at the imaginary bookshop next door.
I raise my mug to her: Here’s to life not imagined, but lived!