(Published in The Toronto Star on August 21, 1986)
By SOHAN S. KOONAR
My eyes flicker from special blend to special blend. I cannot decide on which brand to use this week. I am an inveterate coffee drinker: 10 to 15 cups, depending on the type of day I have.
My job involves less physical, more mental work and coffee does make the difference. I am not addicted to one brand nor am I faithful to one type of taste. I drink what my fancy dictates for a week or the bottom of a jar. I’m not fussy.
Today “Taster’s Choice” catches my eye. It is the most expensive brand. But who cares. I’m worth it. I work for my money. I work very hard and I earn every last penny of it.
“Can I help you?”
The female voice penetrates my ears over the diffused din of the grocery store. I turn to look into deep blue eyes. Like a cat’s, the right one sitting at an obtuse angle to the left. The ever present green smock of the store staff covers her from neck to below the knee.
“May I help you please, sir,” she repeats in a crackling yet confident and still helpful voice. I look at her from the mop of blond hair to the awkward pointy shoes covering her toes. She stands there, shaken, I’m sure, but she does not flinch.
“So what should I drink this week?” I ask her with an exaggerated interest.
“Cheap or good?” she retorts.
“Good,” I answer.
“Taster’s Choice,” she replies.
I pick up a jar and without much ado, walk to the express counter and while the clerk wraps my item, I glance over and she is watching me. I smile and wave weakly.
Back at the office, the coffee tastes great.
* * *
“So what will it be today?” she asks me. She’s managing the coffee counter and the cigarette stand all at once and I am her only customer.
“A regular coffee and a packet of Rothmans,” I reply.
She busies herself pouring the coffee from the pot into a Styrofoam cup, adds cream and sugar, stirs it vigorously, hands it to me, picks a packet of Rothmans and slams it down beside the coffee.
“That will be $2.94,” she informs me without as much as looking at me. I give her $3. She rings up the register, carefully picks six pennies and arranges them beside the packet of cigarettes.
“I hope you’re enjoying Taster’s Choice,” she says with nary a look in my direction.
I slip the hot liquid, smile and say, “In fact, I am.”
The cat’s eyes meet mine. She puts the capable, small yet strong hands in the pockets of her green smock. “I’m glad.”
She has no other customers and I am in no hurry to return to my office. I sip the coffee a little too loudly and slowly work the packet of Rothmans into the pocket of my overcoat and study her face.
We stand there awkwardly, a little embarrassed, I presume; she stiffly, with her hands in her pockets, avoids looking at me and I make unmusical noises with the Styrofoam cup and its hot contents. Neither of us budges. Soon the coffee is gone and in a spasm of anger, I crush the empty cup in my hand, throw it in the yellow gaping garbage can, turn on my heel and walk back to my office.
* * *
Women! I can take them or leave them. They have been the bane of my life. I have gone through the 11th, the 12th or is it the 13th prolonged breakup of my life. The emotional trauma and the disarray have turned me off. If I never see another woman or meet one, I would be the happiest man alive.
The most recent episode of my romantic life has been another disaster, a little different yet similar to the one before it and the one before that and so on and so forth. It has been a case of temporary ecstasy, until intimacy was established and ugliness revealed.
It has been a case of meeting someone attractive, someone who piqued my libido, satisfied it and killed any further interest. However, the last one had been a little more. For once I thought I had found what I had wanted, but true to form, the emotional drudgery had finally taken its toll and the dreams had turned to dust, leaving me bitter, dissatisfied and against all womankind.
I watch her from a distance. Despite myself, I watch her, my eyes following her like the appropriate pull of a magnet, a compass that relentlessly points in the right direction. Physically there is little attraction: a mop of dirty blond hair and awkward maroon shoes connected by an oversized green smock. I walk over to the coffee display and hear the familiar voice.
“May I help you please, sir.”
I smile, turn and gaze into the cat’s eyes. She smiles to reveal a row of small, white but uneven teeth. “What will it be this week?” I ask her.
She moves over to the counter as if to rearrange the display, taking one of those capable hands out of its hiding place in the smock and flicks it over the neatly arranged jars. My eyes follow it.
“I kind of liked your last choice,” I tell her.
She smiles, turning that impish face into a suddenly more animated but charming one. “The Taster’s Choice? I thought you’d like it.”
“I did,” I assure her and to add emphasis I say again, “I did.”
“I was sure you would,” she replies rather confidently.
I look for a sign of cockiness but find none and gaze back into the blue cat’s eyes and the impassive, not too perfect face, the hands now disappeared into the pockets of the smock.
The cat’s eyes are fixed on mine and we stand there looking at each other for a long moment. I finally look away and when I look back she has turned to help another customer. I pick a jar, Taster’s Choice of course, and hurry to the express counter. While the clerk rings my purchase, she is nowhere to be seen.
I walk dejectedly to my office.
* * *
I have always sought the beautiful and the exotic. Under the psychedelic lights of the evening, the painted faces become objects of pursuit: beautiful, immediate, promise of satiation and a deep sleep.
But the harsh rays of the morning sun, filtering through a high-rise window, bring an inflamed mind, a weakened ego and a pock-marked face next to mine. The realities of the day after are harsh.
There is the running of the tap, the flush of the toilet, a whiff of perfume and the aroma of fresh makeup, a peck on the cheek and “Au revoir.”
Goodbye in English! A lonely ride to the office and the drudgery of another day of phone calls, angry clients, piled paperwork and frustrated staff. Coffee and cigarettes are my only solace, until another dusk and another round of the evenings before. And no permanence. Footloose and fancy free.
What a burden to bear! Life in the fast lane! I’m not missing much and have not. But why the emptiness, the size of a gravel pit, in my stomach and in my soul? Who or what will fill it? That is the $64,000 question.
* * *
Outside, the storm is relentless, the snow piles higher by the minute and I’m back in the store for a jar of coffee and she stands with little to do behind the coffee and cigarette counter. I study the jars, like I would the titles on a library shelf. Moments go by.
“May I help you please, sir?”
I smile at the cat’s eyes. My brown catching her blue. “Not busy, eh?” I query.
She shrugs her shoulders under the ungainly green smock.
“Maybe I’ll have a coffee,” I tell her.
She moves behind the counter. “And a packet of Rothmans?” she asks.
“Why not,” I say. She slams one on the counter.
I take out $3; she rings the register.
Our eyes meet and hold. There is nothing to her face that would excite me if I was to see it under the psychedelic lights of the disco or the smoky haze of a bar. But it excites me under the clear neon lights of a storm-surrounded, near empty grocery store.
“I like you, you know,” I tell her, my voice cracking under the strain.
“I like you, too,” the cat’s eyes in the imperfect face, the long neck and the green smock, the hands in the pockets.
Once again I study her. The right eye at an angle to the left, without mascara or magnified eyelashes, the whites white not red and streaked with anticipation. The nostrils still, not flared. The lips dry and slightly cracked, not painted, moist and parted. The cheeks ruddy but not roughed. The chin steady, dimpled and untrembling. Under the fluorescent lights, I find it exciting. Arousing. It is real.
Under the psychedelic lights or the smoky haze of a bar, I may have looked momentarily and moved my eyes onto someone more reflective, painted and promising.
But under these harsh but real conditions, I find her irresistible, wholesome, beautiful and promising of not a few hours of nocturnal pleasure, but perhaps of a lengthier and, I wish, a lifetime of satisfaction.
She averts her eyes, arranges her imperfect features into a far away yet immediate expression, the capable hands back into the sanctuary of the large pockets of the green smock and stands there still as an idol for my inspection.
I watch as an endless craving rises within me and, try as I might, within the dark recesses of my lustful mind, I fail to visualize her as naked, obscene and pleasing. I cannot strip her of the green smock, the plain blouse or whatever skirt she’s wearing.
Outside the heavy snow flakes fall and inch by inch, build a barrier around the store. The cat’s eyes remain on mine. I sip the coffee noisily and feel my face blanch.
I know I am doomed.