You--a cute barista who tried to save me from a bad date
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You probably won't remember this, but I have thought about it every day since it happened, and although it happened about 10 years ago it only just occurred to me that your memory might also be haunted by the very same event, and that you likely have been waiting for a reciprocating sign all this time. Also, I may have inadvertently recently watched a suggestive Sandra Bullock movie, the kind that, in the right state of mind, makes otherwise implausible plot twists seem like personally directed cosmic prophecy.
Anyway, here is what happened: in 1999 I was a grad student at UCLA and made the mistake (or perhaps was guided by Destiny, which now in retrospect seems so obviously the case) of agreeing to a blind date, set up by this guy who worked in our IT department but who happened to be a grad student in the Slavic Languages department and whose girlfriend had a lonely friend who had recently moved to town and who wanted to meet someone. My apparent qualifications for this assignment were that 1) I was alive; 2) I had earlier helped this guy set up an amazing color laser printer in his office with the unspoken yet clearly implicit condition that I would thereafter have free access to color printouts (though future events prevented me from ever taking advantage of the opportunity) and he was therefore forever in my debt and felt that plugging back in the life-support system that my hospice-bound love life had been on was a suitable repayment for services rendered; and 3) I happened to be strolling along the hallway outside his office just as he received the plaintive call from his girlfriend demanding some sort of romantic intervention on her friend's behalf immediately, lest his own well-being be threatened (this last bit I gathered myself as his door was open while I walked by). I had some time between resetting my experiments and while my data collection was cooking I thought "what the hell." Hell, indeed. She was from Seattle and was also part of the Slavic Languages department (that was the last time I'll be mentioning "slavic languages" by the way), she was very thin and pale, had multiple facial piercings, and seemed like someone who while having an instinctual ease around coffee also seemed to require regular doses of it in order to maintain her drollness and obvious contempt for the banal. And I had a calculator-watch. Thus, I suggested we take a walk over to the Kerkhoff coffee house on campus. That is where the divine hand of Fate intervened and I almost met you.
Now, I had been to that particular coffee shop many many times before, partly for the coffee and partly for these amazing chocolate croissants which really have nothing to do with this story except that they were almost good enough to warrant an expletive and have also left a lasting impression on me, to the point where I may have been distracted from noticing you, my lost love, the Universe's true purpose in leading me there with promises of chocolate and caffeine. The point is, I was relatively familiar with the menu and had not previously experienced any untoward degree of surprise, consternation, or disappointment in food or beverage items that I had purchased there and so was totally unprepared for the significance of what would soon happen. So it was that with a degree of brazen ennui, my closest attempt at posing as a hip coffee aficionado in my present company, after the thin pale lady ordered something that seemed unnecessarily complicated for a Tuesday afternoon I approached the counter and placed my order. At what should have been one of the greatest most illuminating moments of my life, basking in the heavenly glory of your blue cap and apron like the halo and robes of an angel sent to Earth as a revelation just for me while the lights dimmed and Dreamweaver played for us in the sparkling universe of which we were the only two inhabitants, I was instead distracted and intimidated by the thin pale lady into ordering something whose name was not part of a language I spoke on a regular basis, but which I at least knew did not have anything to do with ice cream, as random as that fact may seem. You knew this as well, my sweet one, and this is how you tried to save me. I am only sorry that it has taken me so long to realize it.
After picking up our drinks (she paid for hers herself which I was more than happy to go along with, given how scary some of her piercings looked close up) we took a small table for two next to a wall and below one of the several speakers placed around the coffee house which happened to be playing something by Smashing Pumpkins, which also happened to be the description of an activity that I would have enjoyed far more than the ensuing coffee talk that I was now dreading. I'm not saying she was a horrible person--she seemed nice enough apart from her contempt for my attempt to order a sophisticated coffee drink at a university coffee shop a little after lunchtime on an otherwise nondescript weekday--but clearly the Universe knew, you knew, and I was slowly coming to realize that she was not only not The One but that I would have to come up with an entirely different strategy for getting free color printouts. The music was just loud enough that I could barely hear her as she went on and on about memes and phonemes, and as I sipped the coffee drink you had given me I began to become even more despondent as I realized that I would also have to find an alternate path instead of the hallway where the IT guy's office was. That is when your message literally slapped me in the face and changed everything.
As I tipped my cup back for another sip, a perfectly formed scoop of jamoca almond fudge ice cream rolled out of the coffee, like Excalibur emerging from the depths, to the rim of the cup and onto my nose. Needless to say, I was shocked, stunned almost to the point of cardiac arrest. This had never happened to me before in my entire life! My "date" was clearly embarrassed and surely took it as yet another of the many vulgarities associated with my being a member of the untouchable caste when it came to coffee. But the point is, there was a scoop of ice cream in my coffee! I had not asked for such a thing, and in fact had never even heard of or known that such a thing was possible. It is true that there was an ice cream place in the same general area as the coffee place, but in the endless serial reconstructions narrated by my own internal F. Lee Bailey I simply cannot think of a way that a scoop of ice cream could have accidentally appeared in my coffee. It was only much later that I realized that you, my love, are the only one who could have put it there as a final effort to save me from thoughts of smashing pumpkins, to give me an out, and to let me know that you saw me, and I mean that in a Joy-Luck-Club kind of way. It had the effect both you and I were looking for, but I didn't know it at the time. For the rest of the time we were there I could not stop marveling at how a scoop of ice cream had ended up in my coffee, I must have said exactly that at least a dozen times. I'm sure soon thereafter as the thin pale lady re-told stories of her worst dates I would come to be known as the ice cream guy. But now, so many years later it is with a Hemingway-esque regret that I think to myself late at night: why didn't I look over to the coffee counter to see you there, my savior, my Lady of the Latte, my love? Would you have smiled and tipped your cap to let me know that everything was going to be ok? Would you have thrown off your apron and gone running barefoot with me through the grass of Meyerhoff park to that special place where the Bee girl from that Blind Melon video seemed to finally find acceptance and contentment? Instead, I wiped my nose, finished my coffee and ice cream, and accompanied the thin pale lady back to wherever it is that the Slavic peoples go. I never saw her again. But alas, I never saw you again either.
I looked for you, from time to time, but looking back I never really knew what you looked like; I was only ever aware of the warmth I felt, much as when one sits in the sun on a Spring day, that I am absolutely positive had more to do with you than the steamers and kettles and lack of air conditioning. I always trusted that somehow I would just recognize you when I found you and know without doubt that it was you, much in the same way that people think about the afterlife or a really great pair of shoes, where everything seems right and seems to fit in a way it never has before.
To this day, with each cup of coffee I pause and wonder what will emerge as I tip the cup back for a sip, wondering if today will be the day that somehow I find you again, if not through a message in my coffee then maybe something more conventional although still just as original, coming from you. So far, every cup has been just another cup of coffee.
Anyway, if you remember a dorky looking science guy who came in every once in a while and who you took pity on and saved from a truly awkward social experience sometime shortly after Grunge had peaked and by whom you found yourself slightly intrigued, look me up. We'll go for coffee. Or ice cream. Your choice.
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