The Unreal Me

This is not my real life.

SHORT FICTION: Coffee Break [for mature audiences]

Posted on January 7, 2010

[Author's Note: I drafted this in July 2009 but thought I'd post it here because it might interest/entertain some readers. It is quite different from other stories I have written.]

“And so I told that bitch that Evan can’t help it. I mean, he has ADD! I don’t know what we’re going to do. Carl wants to pull him out of that school and put him in private. But not Catholic. Do you know what that costs? Private school? We might need to get a second mortgage or something.”

“Huh,” I say, stirring another packet of artificial sweetener into my mug. I remember that I used the last baby wipe to get the magic marker smears off Ashley’s chin before we left. Do I have baby wipes on my grocery list? God, I don’t want to forget to grab those at the store. Maybe I should pick up another package of training pants, too. Ash stayed dry all day yesterday, the third day in a row. She wants to wear her pretty princess and ponies underpants. Maybe she’s ready. I just don’t know.

“So … what did your doctor say?”

I look up from my mug and meet Serena’s careful expression. She tries so hard to be casual about her curiosity, but I know it’s burning in her. I can see that she’s plucking her eyebrows again. And wearing mascara. There’s a tiny black clump of it sticking to her eyelid. I suck at applying makeup, but Serena, who has never needed to wear any, usually looks flawless.

“Benign.” I shrug. From her booster seat Ashley giggles and drops her spoon of yogurt on the floor next to Serena’s foot.

“Oh, good.” The 1812 Overture beeps out of Serena’s left breast and she reaches inside her linen jacket for her cellphone. I open the bakery bag and take out another orange scone. They don’t have that jacket in a size 14. I know that without having set foot in the store. That’s okay. The color … I don’t own anything to match it.

Serena argues with her husband Carl for eight minutes about where they will meet later for dinner. He’s apparently got a taste for sushi, whereas my sister just wants a “really good salad.” Who goes out for salad? Buy a head of lettuce and some grape tomatoes and stay the hell home once in a while.

“Mommy, I feel the poopy coming out.” My three-year-old daughter touches my arm and gazes at me solemnly. She sees through me once again, knows that I’ve bounced another check, that I hid four baskets of dirty laundry in the garage before her grandma’s visit, and that I’ve lied to her aunt yet again.

“Carl, I’m hanging up! Because I’m busy. I … no, fine. You take him to tee ball.” Serena rolls her eyes and shakes her head. For my benefit.

I point to the alcove at the back of the coffee shop. In the midst of negotiation, Serena nods and hands me the diaper bag from the empty chair next to her. I take Ash into the ladies’ room and yank down her sweatpants and diaper. Okay, it’s not a diaper per se. Ashley doesn’t wear diapers anymore. She knows the ABCs and all the songs from the musical Oklahoma. She and her daddy watch it together. Maybe a little too much. Oh, what a pitiful morning … !

As we’re walking back to Serena’s table, Ashley bends over and picks up something from the floor.

“C’mon, sweetie,” I gently pull her along. “That’s dirty. Leave it.”

She ignores me as usual. “Here, Mommy.” She hands me the tiny orange packet. “Now, what do you say?”

I shove the little packet quickly into the side of my purse. I am horrified at my carelessness. It must have fallen out of my skirt as we were walking into the bathroom. I forgot there was a hole in the pocket. Oh, shit, I can’t lose those … .

“Mommy, what do you say?” Ash is scowling at me. She has my scowl, the same little wrinkles of frustration line her brow.

“Thank you!” I growl as I plunk her back into her seat. Hard.

“Ow! That’s not nice, Mommy.”

Serena has her purse on her shoulder already and is gulping down the last of her decaf. It is a wise choice on her part. She’s hyper enough as it is.

“Are you sure she won’t be too much?” I ask my sister, for the third time this morning.

Serena waves it away, her tiny manicured hand a graceful dove in flight. “Forget it. We’ll have a blast, won’t we, Ashley?”

The baby considers the question for a second. “Aunt She-She, where did your eyebrows go?”

“Ashley!” I fail to be stern. If only I could laugh my ass off right now.

Serena scoops up Ashley, the diaper bag, and the remaining half of her low-fat blueberry muffin and sashays out the door to conquer the day. I say a silent prayer for the landscaper she will chew out when she gets back home. I feel certain he did not intend to mow down her hydrangea. If I could afford it, I would gladly hire him to destroy anything in my yard. He looks a little like the guy on the Discovery Channel. The one who tries out all the filthiest occupations there are. Oh, to be the dirt under his fingernails!

I glance at my watch and there are still forty minutes before I have to be anywhere. So I walk back up to the counter and order a regular coffee. The girl hands me an empty to-go cup and I fill it with whatever is in the first urn I see. It doesn’t matter. Colombian, breakfast blend, house mix … any liquid will do.

A minute or so later I am sitting alone in the van. I am parked near a tree lawn, away from other cars. No one going in or out of that shoe store should be able to see me. I look inside my purse and the orange paper arrests my eyes. I used to put the sweetener from the blue packets in all my beverages. When they started to have the yellow packets in restaurants, I tried that and liked it better. The pink packets are just nasty.

I tear the corner of the orange packet and dump the tiny blue crystals into my paper cup. It reminds me of decorating sugar we used to sprinkle on Christmas cookies when I was little like Ashley. That was so long ago.

I sip and the warm coffee slides easily down my throat, a blessing I have been granted — I don’t know why. The taste holds no bitterness, and really it barely tastes like coffee anymore. The first time I drank, almost a year ago, I thought it seemed like raspberry tea with just a touch of mint. This time, it is like sweet creamy milk with cinnamon. I close my eyes and lean back in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t hurt to go. That makes it so much easier to do. It begins with a churning feeling in my stomach and then pressure builds from inside my chest and then there is only darkness.

I arrive and here it is night. A cool breeze caresses my face and I inhale the scent of flowers and ripe fruit. The stars shine in the sky as my barge is gently swept down the river. I am wearing an emerald green gown of silk and holding a crystal goblet. My attendant steps forward and bows. I hand her the cup.

“Where are my musicians?” I whisper.

“They shall play for you in a moment, as it pleases you.”

I nod and reach down to pet the white kitten that is sleeping on a velvet cushion next to me. “And there will be a feast?”

“Yes, my sweet Allyce, for we are filled with joy that you have returned.”

A sigh escapes my lips as the soft strains of the violins and cellos begin. This is more wonderful than ever before. I cannot wait to taste the wines, rich cheese, and juicy meats they will lay out for me with the cakes and fruit tarts. And later I will swim naked in a pool surrounded by candlelight and scented with rosewater. When I emerge from the water, they will brush my hair and rub my skin with lotions. My bed will be prepared and I will slide into the soft linens.

I am alone in the precious silence of my chamber hours later. It is the largest, most opulent bedroom in my manor. Anything I could possibly need or want is within my reach. Bouquets of fresh flowers rest on tables and bureaus throughout the room. Tapestries line the walls, the woven scenes of nymphs and birds and unicorns delight my eyes.

The door opens and he walks in. He is clad only in a brown silk dressing gown. The color of chocolate and coffee with a hint of cream. He kneels at my bedside until I invite him to lay with me. He holds me close and sings softly to me. The lyrics are taken from a poem I wrote, and it has become the most popular love song in all my realm. When the song is over, I kiss his lips and enjoy the feeling of his strong body. He is beautiful, kind, and gentle, and wants only to please me however he can. I think I will allow him to make love to me again. I know he will do everything perfectly. He even looks a little like the guy on the Discovery Channel.

“I need some more packets,” I whisper to him. “I think I only have one more left.”

He stops kissing my thighs and looks up at me. “That one is your last, my love.”

I sit up. “What do you mean? I need more. You can … you will give them to me.”

I see a hard expression settle on his face. “I cannot.”

My heart is pounding. “Tell me why not!”

My lover closes his eyes. “I told you there is a price.”

“Look around! Surely I can afford anything.

He shakes his head slowly. “That is not how you will pay. You have one remaining packet. When you drink that solution, you will come here for the last time. And we will say farewell.”

It is impossible for him to lie to me. “Then …then I will just … stay here this time. I won’t go back!” Tears fill my eyes. The flowers were wilting in their vases already.

He searches my eyes and finds my soul. “Will you not?” he whispers.

I will go back. I know my own heart as he does and I have to go. I have to go back to Ashley and to her father. To a cluttered, fifteen-year-old condo with stained carpeting. To credit card bills and crash dieting. To Ashley. To chemotherapy and radiation, a steep price to pay indeed. But I am a mother. So I will go back.

There will not be another journey here. I will keep the last little orange packet safely hidden somewhere. My blessing and my curse. I will put it in a place where no one can ever discover it, yet I will always know it is there. I will not touch it. Ever. Because I know I cannot bear for there to be a final coffee break.

Filed Under: Fiction - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • VW said,

    Laura, this one has haunted me since you sent it to me last summer. Her inner dialogue is so authentic, full of the “dailyness” of living, yes the true backdrop of her life is so chilling. Good stuff.

  • VW said,

    That should read “yet” not “yes” :-)

  • KJToo » Someone Used to Blog Here, Remember? said,

    [...] “The Significance of the Coffee” can be found on his blog, Laura’s short story, “Coffee Break” (intended for mature audiences) has just been posted, and mine…well, mine has a beginning [...]

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