The barista had a dream in which she was a bartender. The bar was dimly lit with only a baby handful of barflies hovering atop sullen barstools, swilling cheap hard liquor and spewing misogynistic banter that normally offended her. However, in the dream the barista was genuinely engaged and even slung her share of sexist observations. As she turned to reach for another bottle of JB, the barista caught a glimpse of her sallow reflection and shuddered. Her countenance rebounded off the liquor-stained mirror and, much like the men she was serving in that hole of a bar, projected a sickly hue that reeked of destitution. Aside from her ghastly appearance and demeanor, it was a rather banal dream, as it merely substituted the proffering of ground coffee for bottom-shelf whiskey. Upon awaking, she wondered what significance such an episode portended but soon shook off the fading images and headed to the shower.
The next evening, after the barista laid her head down on her pillow, which only an hour ago was nestled within the lumpy down pillow of a young man who frequented the coffee shop and often flirted pretentiously with her as the steam arose from the milk in his Chai Latte, the barista subconsciously envisioned she was a bank teller at a nameless financial institution tucked in the corner of a grocery store. The men waiting in line were but younger versions of the barflies from the night before. Each of the men clutched a corporate check in one hand and a gift-wrapped box in the other. One by one, the men handed her the check with its accompanying deposit slip and then slid the box along the patterned Formica countertop and smiled. Every time the barista attempted to inquire as to the contents of the packages, the men would reach out and take them back. As soon as one man turned to leave, the next one approached and repeated the cycle. The barista, forlorn, watched as the men came and went, hoping that one would let her keep the gift.
The twelve-year-old girl again dreamt she was a barista. The lingering smell of ground Sumatra and Ethiopian coffee beans pervaded her senses when she awoke and her ears still rang with the high-pitched screech that accompanied the milky-white froth of a cappuccino.
Before her parents’ divorce, the girl’s mother had taken her to get coffee at The Collective Beans every Saturday morning, just the two of them. Her mother always ordered a large Chai Latte with whole milk, and the girl would get a small white chocolate mocha with half cream and half two-percent milk. One time the girl had tried her mother’s Chai Latte but found the combination of ginger and cardamom overwhelming and cringed as she swallowed it.
“It wasn’t that bad, was it?” her mother asked.
“It wasn’t good,” she replied.
“You get used to it.”
“I don’t want to,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
The mother laughed. “I suppose so. Maybe you’ll like it when you’re older.”
The girl and her mother hadn’t gone for coffee in several months, not since the girl had moved to Ontario with her father. She occasionally talked with her mother on the phone, but the distance in which they spoke exceeded the mileage between them. It was artificial and often, on her mother’s part, forced, especially since the girl had decided to ask her mother about the divorce.
“Why did you do that to dad?” she asked. There was no response, but a few clicks of static informed the girl her mother was still on the line. A nearly imperceptible sigh followed.
“It’s complicated, honey,” her mother said.
“But you did that stuff, didn’t you?”
A longer pause.
The girl hung up. She wrapped herself in her bed sheets and cried. She promised God she would never touch a man like that, that she’d never do those things the kids at school back in New York teased her about after the news of her mother had spread. But even as the tears seeped into the down of her pillow and she began drifting toward sleep, there was no certainty.
***Jonathan Dittman received his MFA from Goddard College in Port Townsend, Washington. His creative work has been published in The Pitkin Review, and his essay on language and identity theory has been published in the book collection Perspectives on Percival Everett. He is also managing editor of The Rejected Writer.