by: Todd Andrew Clayton
I didn’t call her a bitch, because I knew my mom would have been disappointed.
I was standing behind the register watching a woman who had been perusing the mugs and coffee presses for three minutes, my green apron hanging from my neck and tied snugly around my waist. She kept sneaking looks over her shoulder at me, which meant one of two things:
She needed help
She wanted to steal the San Diego cup she kept touching on the bottom shelf.
She was in her fifties, I guessed, because her hair was greying and the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth were the kind that only stick after years of laughing and scolding and juggling more than you probably should. “She’s fought for those lines,” I remember thinking.
“Hey there, welcome to Starbucks. Can I help you find something?”
She turned her head toward me, slowly, like dragging it through water, and stared.
“I’m fine,” she said, curtly. A lion in tall grass, she lurked behind displays of beans and teas and traveller cups for the next minute, all the while furtively looking my way. I smiled, because I was paid to smile. Finally, she spoke again.
“You went to Point Loma, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I just graduated in May.”
“My son goes there,” she said. “I’ve heard about you.”
“Oh, no way! Who’s your son?”
When she told me his name, I realized that she was the woman who had written a letter to my mom and dad, a letter informing them that they had failed as pastors and parents for not trying to exorcise the gay-ness that had buried itself in my bones. They should be ashamed, she explained to them, that their son was planning on pursuing the gay lifestyle. “There are places that could fix him,” the letter read. I remember cussing a lot on the phone when my dad called to tell me about it, and told him it was ok because her son doesn’t like me, either.
“Oh! Your son’s really nice,” I lied.
She didn’t believe me; I didn’t care. She went back to the grass for cover, fearing the rainbows in my breath might wrap around her heart and make her start kissing ladies and cutting her hair short. She was right to be cautious: you never can tell with us gays. We’re so goddamn contagious, you know.
Her daughter rushed in, presumably from the car, and confidently made her way to the register. She didn’t know about my, what’s the word, condition, so she was cordial.
“Hey,” she breathed. “Can I get a white mocha?” Fearful for her ill-informed child, the woman pounced forward and stood behind her daughter’s shoulder: tall, protective, knowing.
“Totally. It’s $4.55.” While I wrote on the cup, the mother stood violently close, nostrils flared. Once she had paid, the daughter walked to the restroom, and the woman and I were left alone, like arena-bound animals. I started steaming the 2%. Looking first to her left, then her right, the woman leaned over the bar and got as close to my face as she could.
“A lot of people are praying for you,” she threatened. I looked up, meeting her eyes, and—instead of throwing the blistering milk in her face—said nothing. Back to the grass she went.
Little does she know, I’ve been praying for her, too. Big, fat, boy-kissing prayers:
That someday, when she gets tired of fighting, she learns to rest.
That someday she stops fearing.
That someday, when the people in her life who have the same kind of dreams I do have the courage to tell her, she embraces them.
That someday her wrinkles become testaments to a love-filled history.
I added the syrup, pulled the shots, topped it with whipped cream, and set it on the bar.
“Wow, this is really good!” her daughter said, some of the whip still sticking to her lips.
“Thanks,” I replied, smiling for real this time.
Todd Andrew Clayton wishes he were good at soccer. He lives in San Diego & writes at coffee shops & in his living room. Someday, he hopes that he can write & get paid for it. Until then, he’s going to grad school. He likes Thai food & wants to go to Ireland before he dies.