Cafe For Keeps

The café where I sit is next to Curves Figure Salon.   A bell rings I look up from my notebook to see a high school girl come in.  The door closes behind her.  She takes her place in line, gives her order to the counter help, then takes her seat at the cafe table next to me.  The girl stares ahead as if reading the running brick pattern on the wall behind us or the labels on the shelved jars next to the wall.  Her cappuccino, cold too soon, she nurses the drink as if it is still hot.  In small sips she swishes around in her mouth until the drink is gone.

Her tan skirt she wears with white crewneck sweatshirt and red polo, the collar peeking out from the sweatshirt.  I read a curlicue monogram, her high school crest.  Her wallet lays opens in front of her on the table, a bulletproof textile of mirrored C’s and hide trim.  It looks like a prayer book of cards, of places she’s been to, people she’s met, gift cards received from Christmases and birthdays past.

The girl makes two piles from the cards.  In the first, business cards, in the second pile, gift cards.  Borders Books, out of business years ago, library and a Starbucks coffee card, a card I imagine she still has eight dollars left on.  Her town and school library cards I imagine she hasn’t used since school is back in session, her other cards, her old student identification cards from her years in school and her driver’s license.  Her current school id card, she doesn’t much care for, she wishes she wore her hair different for photo day, wonders why she wore braids, what was she thinking?  Why did she have to smile so hard?  All gums and teeth when the photographer called ‘cheese.’  Still, it’s a photo she can live with, unlike her friend M.’s class photo, a friend who’s eyes were closed in every shot.

A few minutes later, I see the girl put all the cards in one hand, rubberband the stack, then put them back into her wallet.   Her knees flapping under the table, I watch as her knees split wide then slam shut.

I think of the plaid uniforms I wore all those years at private schools, that if plaid was a tree, the field of trees I felled over my years of moving in and out of new schools with Dad’s new jobs, the change in the economy.  The years, the bus late again, my clanging blue knees four corners over in the morning cold, cars whizzing by on North Village Ave..  I missed the bus again.  Begging Mom to write me a note, drive me to my new stupid school where I was always a stranger.

Back in the cafe a waitress puts a white deli bag in front of the high school girl.   Her legs, the color of the bag, a bag that matches her sweatshirt.  A study of whites.  Pale, pristine, dinged, bagged up, and crisp.  Her calves under the table, cotton socks pushed into Keds, coconut ‘roons , buttered bread, and perfect teeth.  The day’s order.   Something about three macaroons overheard a minute ago, and two chocolate croissants.  Pastries I think she told herself she’ll bring home.  Two for the car on her way there.

The girl stands next to her table.  Her purse chain over her shoulder, part of a croissant in her hand, her mouth.  She dusts the front of her skirt with her hand, opens the door to leave, a bell shakes awake the shop.  The last of the pastry she popped into her mouth out on the street as she finds her car in the parking lot next to Curves.

Some of the kitchen staff on their breaks stand stare at the girl in the parking lot, or maybe they watch the cut line of mountains from sky in the distance from their place behind the balcony rail.  Someone throws a cigarette to the pavement,  turns to watch a card game next to a wall of plastic igloo coolers, a wall stacked like Leggos where coworkers play a card game they call for keeps.

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