This is the year that we all fell in love with the barista. Or was it the year that the barista fell in love with all of us? Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,* but it started with his eyes, lingering on all of us: the skinny ones, the buxom ones, the ones on vacation from Australia, the ones who live down the street, the ones who rival him in height, the ones who can barely see him over the pastry case. Some men just know how to look. Their eyes turn a key in a door that we didn’t think could be opened — that we didn’t know was there, secreted in the pattern of the wallpaper. And now we are more consumed by this, I think, than he is. Than he ever was. Love looks with the mind. This is true: our minds had plans for us long before his eyes caught ours. They sought out a foolish dalliance, and he has provided one. Our subconscious is just as guilty as he is.
A few months ago, as spring began to suggest itself with unseasonably warm temperatures blowing through still-bare trees, my sister in infatuation (one of many, though it seems this one — tall, with short, spiky blonde hair — occupies a particularly high spot on the totem pole) ambled slowly into the place, taking her position at the back of the line of customers, staring at the chalkboard menu, though I could tell that she was not really thinking about the menu. I could tell because I know that feeling, of concentration straining to mask love. Soon her eyes turned to scan the room. I watched as she registered that our beloved was not here; this was his day off. Her face changed; the muscles went slack. She turned to leave. She hesitated, hovering by the trash can. Then she did leave.
She didn’t order anything. She did not buy a drink from her local coffee shop that day because our beloved was not there to hand it to her. Could it be that her $4.25 daily investment in cold brewed iced coffee was really just an investment in him, the drink an afterthought, another crumpled pile of New York City bills passed casually from one hand to another? This was a weighty concept. But I think what weighed on me was that there was another person attempting to so obviously organize her fate around this man — another person besides me. Gradually, I realized there were more than two of us.
There is the South American model studying part-time at NYU. There is the actress with the beautiful auburn hair. There is the comedian whose chest he stares at more than her face. And so on. Et al.
It seems that any woman he gazes at for more than two seconds becomes ensnared in his workaday web, spun out of boredom and sexual desire. Who could blame him for spinning it: while idly watching some detective show the other night I heard a female character say, I mean, where else do you realistically meet romantic partners besides work? My ears perked up. This was true; I knew it all too well. The other character, a male, chooses to answer her rhetorical question: I meet women all over the place. Well, we sisters in barista infatuation can say that, too. We meet men “all over the place.” For example, at our local coffee shop. In his case, he is meeting women “at work.”
The narratives our mothers spin for us when we’re young last a lifetime. My mother has always been leery of tall men. She believes they possess a power that shorter men do not. I think all it took was one negative experience with a tall man to bind her to this opinion forever. I have had reasonably good luck with tall men. Still, her words on the subject haunt me, because I think I have finally met my match. Is it really his half a head of extra height over the common man that makes him so confident, so liberal in his application of lustful gazes and flattering words? Regardless, he has his pick of us. We are all wondering who — or, realistically, how many — he will choose to escort outside one night, into the real world, to commit to for longer than the time it takes to make a cappuccino.
To work for love: is that what this is? To compete, as if a contestant on a reality TV series, for the heart of the barista, and hope that you are “good enough” to beat out all the pretty regulars and countless new faces who may traipse into the store tomorrow, or next week, or in three months, and be lured toward him by his admiring eyes? He has a seemingly limitless amount of admiration to give out. God forbid he store it away and save it all up for just one woman. This place is a microcosm of New York: a parade of women, and a small panel of men to judge them.
At the core of it, this is an issue of control, in the sense that none of us has any. I think about the shoe being on the other foot: if I were the tall, handsome manager of this place, wouldn’t I be on a similar power trip, whiling away the slow summer hours half-heartedly seducing attractive coffee drinkers? Wouldn’t I also think of it as a silly, inconsequential game to occupy my mind between lid restocking and making hearts and stripes out of espresso and milk foam? But I can’t help but think that this is a game that only men play. Men — and confident women.
I know with some certainty that I’m one of the special ones, whatever that means. I “already have a rose,” as it were. But I’m one of, and that is a despicable position to be in. It whittles away at the smidgeon of confidence that I was born with, none of which has been derived from men, happily. Men should not give, nor take away, confidence, yet he’s taking away some of mine. It goes without saying that I would not last a week on a dating show.
I fall back into the role of my 12-year-old self: the girl who was a popular guy’s best friend and had to listen to him constantly whinge about his girlfriend of the week, and be a messenger between him and next week’s girlfriend, and try to never say anything to reveal how much I cared about him. You know that Blondie came in here the other day looking for you, my 12-year-old self wants to tell the barista, and she left — left! — when she realized you weren’t here. A lot of good that would do.
Maybe it’s not so easy for him. We come and go as we please — more accurately, we come pleased, and we go sadly — in and out of his life, day after day. Maybe I’ll never come back again. What then? Would he replace me with another, or several? Perhaps his attempt to lure us all in is just an attempt to feel secure, to feel like he does have control, when in fact he has none. He has control in the sense that he can charm us to boomerang back to him tomorrow or a few days from now. But he doesn’t really have us — our numbers, our stories, our time, our bodies wrapped in his arms. He has our eyes and our names.
Blondie came in the following day and looked as if she had struck gold: he was there, behind the espresso machine, and visibly happy to see her, or so I deduced, in my withered, unsure state. My pulse quickened to the tempo of the song playing over the cafe stereo. David Bowie, “Moonage Daydream.”
Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me
The church of man, love
Is such a holy place to be
Make me baby, make me know you really care
Make me jump into the air
She leaned provocatively against the bar, the unfortunate flatness of her ass not visible to him (see how lust turns women into witches, as if the point of life is men, and he is the last man on earth). She leaned into him, to reduce the space dividing them. I never do that. I never think to do that. I would be too self-conscious of what everyone else would think — that they would think exactly the awful thoughts I’m thinking about Blondie now: Foolish girl. So desperate. Doesn’t she know she’s just one of many? I will never be anyone’s “baby,” I thought then, or not so long as she is in the room. She is the type of woman David Bowie writes songs about, whereas I am the observer, the friend, the sidekick coworker, the dull but necessary narrator at the beginning of a Shakespeare play.
I hid behind a book and also an alcove of glass for the duration of their conversation. Thanks a lot! I heard him sarcastically say to her at one point. But the music obscured the rest — all flirtatious, no doubt, for when might she return? He had to underscore how much he cared. When she left, with a promise to “let him know” about something — something, I feared, outside the confines of the coffee shop — I watched as she kept smiling all the way out the door, all the way around the block and out of sight. She is, I thought, in the parlance of Charlie Sheen, as co-opted by last year’s winner of The Bachelor, “winning.”
Can seduction possibly be fun? I lose my feminist scruples in his presence, if I ever had any to begin with. I want to say that two can play his game (or rather, six, or however many of us he keeps in his mental stable), but I think some things will never change: that he occupies a generously sized space in my heart, because I am a one-man and one-woman kind of woman, and that I do not occupy as big a space in his.
Perhaps it’s all up to me. (He has described himself to me as “lonely.” How can he be lonely, with all these riches before him?) In the years when I first tried to shed my tomboyish tween guise, I was in the business of grand romantic gestures: poems delivered to campus mailboxes, overwhelmingly honest e-mails sent to friends I had accidentally fallen in love with during art history seminars. There is nothing wrong with this. There is much right with this. A man should not be expected to be the knight in shining armor. Women make perfectly good knights.
And lest I forget: I’m not some innocent victim, and nor is Blondie or the untold others. It all began with his eyes, and I loved those eyes first because they fell on me — continue to fall on me, sometimes a dozen times a day. I bask in them, in the warmth of them, in the attention. The feeling he gives me is old, innocent feeling. It’s better than anything natural or man-made. It’s the feeling people chase in alcohol, in drugs, in sport, because it’s so much more easily procured there. But in its purest and most natural state — love — it is strongest. Why split hairs over how much of this feeling he gives me? My task is not to prove to him that I deserve all of his focus. It’s to be, and see if being will result in as much feeling from him as his eyes did from me. Call it fear, call it old age, call it pride. But I’m all I have to give.
*Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.