The sound of jazz plays in the coffeehouse as I turn the pages of a Philip Roth novel. I look up from the book, hear a young woman’s voice, and feel my heart beat faster. I can’t stop imagining how it would be to fall in love with her.
“Have a good day,” says the barista to a man holding a Styrofoam cup.
She is tall and slender, with straight dark hair and an alluring smile.
“Here’s your mocha,” she says to another patron. “Hope you enjoy the coffee. Come back soon.”
I read a few pages while taking a sip now and then. The coffee flows down my throat so effortlessly, swimming in its warmth. I hold the ceramic cup tight and dream of walking with the barista on campus with a light snow falling. Her button nose was red from the cold as we tumbled onto a mound of the white stuff and couldn’t stop kissing. The world seemed frozen with joy.
I put down the paperback. Whenever a pretty girl gives me attention, I fall in love instantly.
“That’s a nice sweater,” she said when I first came in, and I was jelly.
It’s foolish, I know, but fantasies can come true. Take the book I’m reading, Goodbye, Columbus. The main character, Neil Klugman, got the fantasy girl that he never thought he’d have. Fantasy drives emotions. Intense emotions make life seem surreal.
I get more sugar and mix it into the brew like a magic potion that stimulates my romantic thoughts. I remember all the treasures I’ve read that were made into movies. There are too many to list—The Graduate, Endless Love, Doctor Zhivago, Water for Elephants….
The coffee is warm but not hot, creamy but not milky, just like me—melancholy but not depressed. I’m going through life pining for that one young woman with whom I could make my college days special. Even a temporary affair would suffice. Something I could remember for the rest of my life.
I wish I could have the confidence to ask her, “Let’s have a coffee after your shift. I want to know you better.”
But I’m Lyle Yallowitz, a book nerd extraordinaire. Hell, I major in Elizabethan literature. I harbor romantic fantasies like some people collect stamps. I’m not handsome, articulate, or debonair. Never would I have the courage to ask the barista for a date. That’s why it’s safer for me to live inside a fictional narrative where I can control my fate.
My cup is empty, and so I ask the barista for a refill. The barista smiles back, and says, “It looks like an interesting book you’re reading.” But nothing comes out of my mouth except coffee bean breath, so I go back to my seat feeling like a failure. It’s like climbing a mountain when you’re afraid of heights.
I wonder where she is from. Does she come from a wealthy suburb? Or maybe her parents are poor, and she works for her college tuition?
Regardless, the barista is sweet, like my coffee, and I would love her whether she’s from Toledo or Hoboken.
“Can you work a double tomorrow, Carla?” her supervisor asks.
Her name is Carla. And I say it several times under my breath.
Carla is gracious to everyone and only wants the customers to be satisfied. They respond to her favorably and thank her for their cappuccinos and lattes. Many leave her dollar tips in the little jar at the register.
I close my eyes and imagine Carla coming to my table and whispering, so her boss doesn’t hear, “I get off from work at two. Why don’t we go to that big bookstore on Main Street? It has a full array of love stories and serves wonderful coffee.”
“Oh, yes. I love bookstores,” I say.
My youthful desire swirls around my head like the movement of stirring coffee. A love story with the barista sounds so delicious. Then my Apple Watch beeps. Oh shit! I forgot about the allergy appointment. Damn those allergy shots—constantly interfering with my love life.
I take a final gulp of coffee and put down the mug. I toss the book into the backpack and wipe the coffee residue from my lips. With only a few minutes to spare, I walk toward Carla, put a dollar in her tip jar, hoping to get a thank you or another smile. Then I’d say something clever, like, “You’re the prettiest barista I’ve ever seen, and I’ve known my share.”
When Carla doesn’t return my glance, I sadly turn away. It feels like a stake in my heart—another painful rejection. So, I leave the coffeehouse wondering why I can’t be as lucky as Neil Klugman in Goodbye, Columbus. And then I rationalize that Carla’s probably not an avid reader, and doesn’t really like the taste of coffee, anyway. And besides, even if we had a romance, Carla would probably dump me like all the women I imagine having relationships with.