I. There is a sweet relief in taking the plunge. I slid my five-dollar bill across the counter just to wrap my greedy hands around that green double-tailed mermaid. I let her pull me under with promises of a chic new lifestyle powered by latte-smooth sixties rock. When I was a teenager, Starbucks was purely for celebration. Straight A’s were rewarded with half-hour drives to sip Mocha Frappucinos. I envied all the 20-somethings clutching their white cups, gossiping in hushed tones. The femme fatales looked so glamorous in their dangly jewelry and oversized sunglasses. Their lives sounded so thrilling from what I could make out over the hiss of the milk steamer. When I grew up, I wanted to be a Starbucks regular. Success tasted like saccharin syrup descending over a mountain of cream.
II. Moving swiftly through the masses in Manhattan, I always felt like a toddler in her mother’s heels. I felt an invisible force pulling me through the city streets like a magnet – the desire to become one of “them.” I hid behind Starbucks cups between classes at FIT so nobody would notice the small-town girl wondering when she would evolve into Carrie Bradshaw. Whenever that whale of a city began to swallow me whole, I would duck into the 27th Street Starbucks for air. During one of my last visits before moving to Poughkeepsie, I caught a reflection of myself that startled me enough to burn the back of my throat on a hot Soy No-Water Chai Latte. Chowing down on quinoa salad and scrolling through the latest edition of Women’s Wear Daily on my MacBook, I looked like a Manhattan woman. But I sure didn’t feel like one.
III. I didn’t feel like a real New Yorker until I set foot in Heathrow during the winter of my junior year of college. My friend Ashley and I were vibrating with excitement upon surviving our red-eye flight to London. My energy faded while unpacking and upon finding a vial of my then-boyfriend’s cologne in my suitcase, I lost it. Ashley and I set out for fuel and a taste of home. Everything in the Kensington High Street Starbucks was the same as in America, but strangely different. It still smelled of burnt coffee and overwhelming sugary syrups, but the menu featured Indian spices I hadn’t tried and “sarnies” I never cared to sample. I settled on the familiar buttery smoothness of a caramel macchiato, took a seat in the fun-size version of the American Starbucks wooden furniture, and sobbed.
IV. Thinking of my boyfriend back home brought me back to my earlier college years when I had a permanent seat in Poughkeepsie store. Since Starbucks resided within walking distance of the Residence Inn, my fellow transfers and I were regulars. The memories of the stories we wove there still come to me when I taste Guatemala Antigua coffee. Armed with textbooks, iPhones, and the latest hotel gossip, my comrades and I shared everything we possibly could. I didn’t entirely enjoy their company; what I did enjoy was my freedom to run the hotel halls and live out all of my college fantasies. I had moved on to simple coffee to make up for the chaos in my life. I often lounged in the store to feel the warmth I wanted so badly when I hugged my best male friend who I was secretly in love with. He would accompany me every morning to eat multigrain bagels while we recapped the fun we thought we were having. I floundered on the brink of adulthood.
V. He reciprocated my feelings the same week Pumpkin Spice Lattes came back in season the following year. I knew pumpkin season wouldn’t last for long, but I thought our relationship would last much longer. Our relationship was sad and sweet. The cologne-hiding boyfriend even started working at Starbucks, where I would spend days watching him work and savoring every free drink on the menu. I told him all of my secrets, like the time I tried to kiss a guy all night at a party only to have him scream at me that he was gay, and all he told me in return were the details of the Starbucks secret menu.
VI. Third time’s the charm. Our third break-up was our last. I was so upset when I received his scathing text message that I couldn’t finish my Americano with cinnamon. The boat sank right under my feet and I had no choice but to go down with it. I couldn’t find solace in my coffeehouse because it was forever tied to the ex-boyfriend in the green apron. Months later, my need to feed my caffeine addiction outweighed my sorrow and I went back to Starbucks. Overpriced espresso realism replaced my previous sweet optimism that can only exist before the siren song of adulthood claims you. But I can’t picture it any other way. I sometimes imagine how my path might have been different if I chose Dunkin instead, pulling up to gas-station drive-through windows, shouting like a madwoman at a machine.