Pablo stood in his new black orthopedic shoes. To prolong their life, he always removed them with care the moment he got into his car—he never wore them to the bodega or to Hector’s house. The new shoes were a huge splurge on his part. But as he prepared his coffee, already one third of the way through his shift, he swelled with pride and his feet thanked him. The shoes would be stained by the end of the day.
Pablo knew all the customers’ names, even though they didn’t know his—despite it being sewn onto his apron. He had a system for prioritizing the orders of his most important customers. Every morning, even on weekends, Pablo had Susan’s order waiting for her at 7 a.m., except today. He had been pulled into the restroom to unclog a toilet, throwing him off his usual cadence. When Susan arrived, her double flat-white skim wasn’t ready. Pablo’s strained heart outpaced the steady drip of coffee behind him and he mumbled apologies to Susan as she stood waiting. He hated disappointing the customers. She gave him a small smile and tried to act gracious, but she failed. There were many Susans and not as many Marys, Pablo thought. Mary’s order changed regularly; sometimes, she would order an iced coffee in the middle of January, chiding herself nonsensically for Pablo’s benefit. “Bundled up in all these coats. It’s no wonder you still have ice back there!”
As Pablo prepared espressos, he often caught himself thinking of Hector, especially that time when their knees touched, sitting across from one another in a diner. Pablo had left it like that for a moment too long before pulling his knee away, but Hector hadn’t winced. They met five years ago, when Hector still drank, both saddled up at El Nuevo Tavern. Pablo had immediately noticed Hector’s right upper arm proudly displaying a tattoo of the Virgin Mary praying atop a bed of roses. The conversation had been easy; the Yankees were playing the Red Sox and they were each five beers deep.
Two months after they met Hector stopped by the coffee shop. He says now that he didn’t remember where Pablo worked, that he had happened to be in the area and wanted a coffee. The heavy blanket of snow kept people home that day. Even Pablo’s manager hadn’t risked the drive. Hector’s school was closed. Hector was a janitor Pablo knew that, but he always referred to himself as a handyman and Pablo didn’t push it. Pablo sat with Hector for two hours before a customer interrupted them. They talked as though they were old friends, not needing the beer that had lubricated their conversation the first time around. Pablo knew there was no reason to expect Hector today, yet every time the door chimed, Pablo looked up, hoping to see him. He could wait until after work when he would go to Hector’s and play video games on opposite ends of Hector’s frayed sofa, the color of blond roast coffee.
At work, to distract himself from his distraction, Pablo fantasized about the life of the customers giving them a misplaced sense of importance. He never wanted to keep them waiting, especially the doctors and nurses in scrubs. The thought of adding caffeine to a surgeon’s order when the surgeon ordered decaf nearly paralyzed him. The surgeon would be too shaky for a successful procedure. If he didn’t give a surgeon who wanted caffeine regular espresso, the surgeon would be off his game, unalert and out of focus. A customer might be pregnant, and the caffeine dangerous to the baby. Pablo knew the rest of the staff thought he was paranoid. “Sorry, we’re a little backed up here!”, they would say, loud enough to be sure Pablo heard. Even Pablo’s manager told him he needed to be faster and less methodical in his execution.
Today, like all weekdays, the rush of self-important morning commuters in unnecessarily stiff clothing was replaced with the rush of the stay-at-home moms clad in yoga pants and tennis whites, weary from too much family time, which was replaced with a slow trickle of shoppers out for a leisurely morning stroll. Around 10 a.m., Pablo took his 15-minute break. He purchased a video game from eBay for Hector’s birthday—although he hadn’t decided if he was going to give him a gift, or maybe he just wouldn’t wrap it—paid his cable bill and texted his mom: “Hi Mom, yes Sunday works. Day is going great hope yours is going great love you 2”. After his break, Pablo put his apron back on over his bloated belly, washed his hands, and proceeded to the counter. A friendly woman, fit but not as fit as she had once been, placed her order. “Good morning. How are you today, Pablo?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s just beautiful out, isn’t it? Cold, but at least it’s sunny! I think I’ll have one of those blueberry muffins. And, a caramel macchiato, grande. I used to get those all the time but haven’t had one in ages! Oh, and can you make that decaf, please?”
Hector’s brain absorbed the order and translated it to his hands, that entered it into a machine, which spat out a sticker with the same order in permanent ink that was plastered to the lady’s cup: Kathy (but also a Susan), Caramel Macchiato, Decaf, Grande. He lifted her muffin from the display and prepared her coffee. He didn’t notice the constant drip of coffee that was landing on the toe of his right shoe; it had pooled beneath a seam on the counter and was steadily pulled down by gravity. The woman thanked him and took her order to a nearby table. Pablo greeted the man behind her, the queue already six people deep.
“Excuse me, Pablo?”
Pablo looked around. He realized the lady he had just served was addressing him. Their eyes locked. He nodded and smiled.
“This is decaf, right? I always double check!”
“Yes”, said Pablo. Immediately, he felt unsure and second-guessed himself. He fought to remember if he had used the bean dispenser on the right or the left or both. Under the watchful eyes of his manager, he was forced to abandon the worry to keep up with the line of growing impatience at his helm.
As he was halfway through the order of an older man, the lady, momentarily forgotten, lurched forward, gripping her chest. Two other customers on opposite sides of the café, who until now had been sitting silently at their laptops with heavy, over the skull headphones, shot up from their seats. Pablo froze. He overheard a man on his phone. “She was just sitting here drinking her coffee and keeled over. The one on 8th street.” Pablo stood helpless watching the lady as other customers attended to her. For Pablo, the seven minutes before the ambulance arrived felt like seven hours. The other customers who had been waiting in line stood frozen, too, not wanting to proceed with their order out of respect for the situation. When the woman seemed stable enough, they resumed ordering before the paramedics could take the woman out on a stretcher.
That evening, Pablo drove past Hector’s apartment complex. He drove past Mart’s Liquors. All the while thinking of the lady and Hector. Then, impulsively but not purposefully, he slowed. Many jobs before this one, he had been a regular there. Every evening he’d pull up and buy a fifth, always vodka. It was cleaner for his body. He had given it up without any sort of recovery program because he didn’t have a problem. And because Hector didn’t drink, at least not for the last four years. And when he met Hector, he just wanted him to like him, in whatever form that meant. He told himself that was all he wanted, just someone to play video games with. But lately, he wasn’t sure that was all. He felt as if a small seed had been planted in a cell years ago and had silently grown into a weed so big that it was cracking the cinder walls and wrapping itself around the bars, pulling at them to make space. The light before him turned yellow and he pressed his orthopedic shoes on the brake. While waiting for the light to change, he put on his blinker. He made a right and looped back around. He parked at Mart’s and went inside.
Hayley Nivelle is an emerging writer and practicing attorney. She received a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and a M.S. from the Honor’s Program at Kansas State University. Hayley lives in Harrison, New York with her family.