For a few months last year, I stopped going to Black Coffee because of a contretemps I’d gotten into with one of the servers. He’d been wearing a Fleetwood Mac shirt, and when I went up to pay for my oat flat white, I asked him who his favourite singer was. I’d grown up listening to the band, with whom my mom was besotted.
‘I don’t have any major regrets in life,’ she told me one lazy afternoon while we were chatting on my bed in the sunshine. Then, wistfully, as though she’d been offered the opportunity but turned it down for an oil change, added: ‘But I would like to be Stevie Nicks for a day.’
As I got out my card, the server stammered that he wasn’t sure, and so, putting in my pin, I prompted him, ‘It’s Stevie, right? Stevie is everyone’s favourite.’ He continued to mumble that he didn’t know.
‘So then I asked him if he actually liked them or if he was just virtue signalling,’ I told Libby. ‘And he shouted at me, “I just like their music, okay!”’
What had frustrated me the most about this exchange was not so much the public humiliation—for did it not say as much about him as it did about me?—but that, in addition to joking, I had literally given him the answer.
All you had to say was ‘yes’, I thought, putting my wallet back into my bag, which felt lighter now, having been emptied of my dignity.
But between this, and the time Bosco had tried to steal waffles from the people at table next to us, I knew that I was on shaky ground with the establishment.
‘Yeah,’ Libby said, ‘they’ll probably put posters up of you guys around the café and ban you from the premises.’ They didn’t need to ban me, so reticent was I at the thought of going back, of subjecting myself to the ire of someone I didn’t like and yet still wanted to like me.
Eventually, though, Libby tired of catering to my neurosis. ‘Caitlin, you’ve gotta get over this,’ she told me, as if coaching me through a major break-up, ‘Get back on the horse.’ I didn’t agree with her. Rather, I thought that the server should get over himself, and maybe get under the hooves of some horses. Nevertheless, I appreciated that I had ruined our routine, and so I relented. ‘Okay, fine,’ I messaged her over WhatsApp, my scowl incommunicable through the Internet.
That was how I found myself one Saturday back at the café, tucked away surreptitiously at a small table near the bathrooms. Usually when I’m early to meet someone, as I was then, I scroll through the news on my phone to collect the most depressing conversational material I can find. That way, when my friends arrive, I get to act like an expert on the tragedies of the world, and after only five paragraphs of content. Five!
‘The attack on gay rights in Uganda,’ I might say as they sit down with a cappuccino and raspberry slice. ‘We have to talk about it.’
In these quiet and reflective moments, I also like to send people links to articles that I think they might enjoy, and which I know will make me look interesting. If they’re behind pay-walls, then, like a benevolent dictator, I gift them the article.
‘Oh, don’t you worry,’ I’d say, ‘for I subscribe to both the New Yorker and the New York Times.’
Earlier this year, I sent a story to a friend about how 500 pounds of uncooked spaghetti and macaroni had been dumped by a brook in Old Bridge, New Jersey. 15 wheelbarrows worth of the stuff. That was how much public works officials had to remove.
‘In this inflationary environment?!’ he replied. I was confident that he hadn’t actually read the article, just the headline, and so the next time we spoke, I said, ‘Wasn’t it crazy how they had been used to cover up those bodies?’
‘Wait—what?’ he asked. I was lying of course, it was all carbs and no corpses, but I loved it: the satisfaction of exposing him.
As a result of purchasing the cheapest mobile phone plan I could conceivably get away with, I was out of credit that morning, and so instead of catching up on tragedies, I watched the people around me. Shortly after I’d sat down, a couple walked in, and joined another couple, a balding man and a small woman, at the table just opposite me. They were all in their 70s, I guessed, and it was clear that the newcomers had been at the market, as behind them, like the wake of a boat, trailed a wheelie bag filled with leeks and silverbeet.
Before sitting down, the woman who had just arrived took off her knitted beige hat, unwound her long scarf, and ceremoniously placed one of her three coats on the back of a chair. Then, looking directly at the balding man, she said: ‘I just want to say, that I don’t like being around you.’
Quietly, so very, very quietly, I returned my water glass to the table. The fates have gifted me this, I thought, for getting back on the horse. ‘I find your behaviour unacceptable,’ she continued. ‘I find it triggering—actually, I find you triggering.’
None of them said anything. The tiny woman retreated further into the corner. The leeks and silverbeet sunk lower into the wheelie bag. I wanted to top up my phone, then, so that I could send a message about this to all of my contacts, but I was afraid that in doing so, I might miss the climax of the action. There was no more action to miss, though—or perhaps, what came next was the action.
After handing the man his ass, the woman and her partner went up to the counter and ordered their coffees. Then, all four of them sat together in complete silence, occasionally rotating bits of the newspaper. Domestic news for world news, world news for weather, weather for sports.
‘For an hour and half!’ I trilled at Libby once we’d left. This was all I had wanted to talk about, but afraid the group would overhear me, I waited until we were out on the street to give Libby the play by play. ‘And I mean, this was a full-blown character-attack—an assassination, really.’
Even while watching the drama unfold, I had envisioned how I would retell it to friends. That I didn’t have more details or any context made the experience all the more compelling, I thought, cinematic actually—as though the world was ripe with possibility. It also begged the obvious question, ‘Why, if you hate being around this man so much, are you still meeting him for coffee on Saturday morning?’.
The more I meditated on this, though, the more patently obvious the answer seemed. I mean, how many of us have said, ‘Yes, we should do this again,’ when what we really want to do is hiss, ‘I would rather stick my head in a blender set to ice crushing mode than spend a single second more with you.’
It seemed as though the woman had decided to play along, to follow the social norms and niceties, but then part way through delivery, abandoned all pretence. ‘Stop the charades!’ I imagined the voice in her head yelling as she stood over the balding man, resplendent in her layers of knitted armour. The fact that she had gone off script meant that there was no directorial direction for how the quartet should respond, which would explain why not one of them did.
As for the rest of us, I wasn’t sure. Were we so wrapped up in our own selves that we failed to notice the glitch in the matrix? Or did we notice the glitch, but then pretend we hadn’t — the implications of alternative realities too terrifying to grapple with? It’s so much easier, after all, to follow the path that convention has laid for us, to be not who we are, but who we are expected to be.
After saying goodbye to Libby, I wandered home, passing on my way a motley crew of market-goers as they spilled out of Newtown School. There were the young people with edgy haircuts and anarchy patches on their jeans; families with babies in slings and toddlers in organic cotton; elderly women, bags full of fresh fruit and vegetables still not as colourful as their garbasaar. Like every middle-class white person who lives in Newtown, this is one of my favourite things about the suburb: the diversity. And yet, beyond their produce preferences, I didn’t know a single thing about any one of these people, not really. Perhaps not ever.
Just before we left the café, the balding man spoke. It was the only thing I heard him say, and it was so anodyne it was hard for me to judge whether it was meaningless, or perhaps, the most profound and truest sentence uttered that day. As the barista walked by their table, cutting through the silence that had enveloped it, the balding man tipped his glass in their direction and said, smiling tiredly, ‘Good coffee.’