“Don’t Look Now, the Universe is Laughing”
by Will Carlson
At some point in our lives everyone meets at Starbucks. It’s true. In 1997 an experiment was conducted by Professor Maxwell Sloan of Loyola University to test his theory. For five years at the college’s campus franchise two blocks away from his office Dr. Sloan resided at the corner table next to the fake sugars and watery creamers and repackaged Joni Mitchell albums. In 2000 alone coffee was the cause of a $5,000 grant, a small price to pay to discover the magnet of humanity. He met couples from San Jose, travelers from Calcutta, gymnasts from Warsaw, two former lovers, lawyers from Capetown, Bobby Terrell who had moved away from Dr. Sloan’s fourth grade class when he was nine, and in September 1999, while on tour stopped in his favorite singer, James Taylor.
Starbucks had been discovered as, given enough patience, the world’s welcoming mat. His thesis: man cannot resist the allure of individualized wholesale and gimmicked hip, especially if bad java is involved at asinine prices. He received the 2003 Nobel Prize for Sociology, while Starbucks stock jumped three dollars in one week. To celebrate, the Seattle-born chain introduced the Cabolli size, which roughly translates to “Are you kidding me?”
Now, this is not to say that by simply walking in and slapping down five dollars for a cup of Joe everyone will walk through the door and across your path. If you ever wondered what happened to your high school prom date Kip Gordon and whether or not he is now exceedingly fat, sit at one franchises’ counter and he’ll appear. It could be days, months. Be prepared to wait years, but it will happen. Just don’t expect Kip to recognize you or even want to talk about the old days or the news ones or anything between the two. He could just be there for a Cabolli, two marmalade danishes and a toasted bagel with extra strawberry cream cheese. So a word of caution: Starbucks is the gate, but not the key, and cannot be held liable for anything after the point when that one specific patron of Earth arrives. That part is entirely up to you.
Marley Watkins can’t decide if she likes Chicago. She must admit, it has everything. An entire section of the city devoted to theater, blocks of world-renowned restaurants and deliciously endless greasy spoons, miles of beautiful parks, history to choke the sky and a view of unsurpassed architecture. Everything, in fact, going to utter waste off the icy, God-vacant shores of Lake Michigan. She pulls her scarf around her with a good tug, takes a last gasp of warm air and explodes out from Union Station. It is only a visit, and a brief one at that she considers, as her hair flails to the delight of a frigid wind, before Virginia’s much more balmy Hampton University calls again.
A taxi heeds her wave. Within the cab she puts her hands quickly to her cheeks, rubs, and tells the driver an address. They speed off Adams and turn down the Magnificent Mile. She gazes at all the high-fashion shops and boutiques, her first glimpses of the darkened city. ‘Certainly,’she thinks, ‘it’s nothing like Albuquerque,’ but she stops, knowing comparing the two is futile. Here she is, a virgin to the Windy City, and she find herself reminiscing of a place thousands of miles away, deep in the Land of Enchantment. She doesn’t get home too much anymore, regrettably. First two years at Sweet Briar, a beautifully rustic all-girls college amid undulating western Virginia, complete with, in her imagination, a moat and raised draw bridge. ‘Never mind all that,’ she commands herself, ‘all that is in the past.’ Hampton is the present, a choice she made with the best of intent. It has only been one semester–it’s the first always the hardest? This seems to her like common knowledge and she eases slightly. Her mind instead yells at herself for being silly, and to snap back to the question at hand, namely finding her way to his place. She tries another call from her cell as she watches the fare climb higher. No answer. Fortunately the cab has nearly arrived at the address , and she pays without wasting a movement, thanking the driver cheerily. The apartment is towering and for the most part dark as she looks up. A try on the buzzer does not warrant a response. Another message is left to ask when he is to get off of work. So much for trying her best to be early. The first business is to get out of the chill.
Henry Clark flips through the last pages of a thoroughly inspected Tribune, except for the business section he always neglects, now buried under layers of more interesting pages. A petite waitress with tightly pulled-back dark hair and a green “Kelly” name tag asks him without a hint of the boredom she is suppressing if he would like another steamer, his nearly drained. It had always been steamers, going back to college, as he would catch one one the way to an especially boring class. Never did get the actual coffee bug, tough. He declines the offer. There is still the matter of a blustery walk of several blocks ahead of him for a train departing in an hour, the last to Galesburg that night. He looks disagreeably at the gray scene outside the Starbucks-logoed window. It was good to get away for a while from work and the Galesburg Register-Mail, a tiny newspaper not ready to splurge daily on color photography or experiment with articles beyond farm expos and Kiwanis events. He is happy, just having visited his old college friends Andy and Tom out in the suburbs to usher in 2005. Again they had teased his Chicago curiosity by reminding him of the benefits of finally moving north too. Maybe he should. Three years at the paper since graduation had brought him little more than a steady, humble paycheck and a scrapbook of dull columns, most only a mother could love. Perhaps it was time to get in with an Arlington Heights publisher, or the larger paper in DuPage. One day, maybe, the Tribune itself. His dreaming causes him to lift up the front page again to analyze the familiar blue banner at the top, but his attention is quickly drawn to a side story along the right edge: “Afghani Extremist Leader Captured in Village Raid.” It was another brief meditation on the ongoing wars abroad, like so many before, some of which Henry had written himself for his Register-Mail. In that moment he wonders if he ever could have been even a sandgrain in the beach of these historic times. No, he considers, he probably never would had made it through boot camp. That’s all for other types of people, is his verdict. He reaches behind for his draped coat, but a girl’s arm is lightly resting on the back of the chair. He takes a quick glance as he purposefully begins a reexamination of the sports section.
Marley Watkins is too bundled for much of her to be seen. Anything on the menu could easily satisfy her, as long as it is hot. She places an order for a large coffee, the smallest size available, and hands Kelly the petite waitress her check card. In a moment a steaming cup is brought. Three seconds later Marley’s arm brushes the back of a customer’s chair while reaching for skim milk. She thinks she hears a soft apology from the man next to her for his chair being pushed out. But she couldn’t be sure. Her world for that instant is the rosted dark heaven inside a paper cup as she takes her first sip, never registering a moment later a newspaper being folded, placed under an arm, and its carrier walking out the door into the cold.
The cakes on the bottom shelf of the case makes a little girl point with longing at the sweets beyond the glass. She looks up, two large black eyes flashing to her father far above.
“Daddy, chocolate!” she presses, slightly anxious. Her tall, tanned father must excuse himself from the middle of ordering two waters and an orange juice to look down at his wide-eyed daughter. The jingle of the door’s bell lightly chimes its greeting as three enter behind them.
“Not now,” her father calmly tells her, but knowing this will likely not be enough to pacify the girl he adds, “We’ll be home soon, and Mommy is making us dinner.”
The three at the door are clearly tourists and no one pays them any mind. The father of this new group has shaggy brown hair and short jean cutoffs, the wife shorter and stout, lugging a vacation bag from which just about anything could be pulled if the need arose. Their travels have given them a good color, but it is the kind of tan that says, “I’m rare.” They look weary too, ready for the cool air and large beds of the hotel. A son of eight races ahead of them out of habit, but finding the store a small size he brakes, to instead intermittently hop.
“Dad, do you really have to go the bathroom again?” the blonde boy asks aloud to the embarrassment of all. Realizing he’s again spoken too soon he turns a shade of red and glances down, forgetting all about hopping. The small girl ahead of him cannot be distracted from her hopes without trying once more.
“Daddy…” she whimpers a shallow, last effort, letting her father fill in the rest.
“You heard me Marley,” the man with broad shoulders far above says firmly. Seeing any further attempts a dead end, she decided cake is now not worth her time; in another second she is distracted into scampering over to the window to investigate the outside. Few cars are sitting in the lot, and even fewer butterflies and birds are out in the Floridian summer heat to be entertained by. Her eyes turn their attention to the people inside as her father digs for money at the counter.
“How did you like Cocoa Beach today, Henry?” she hears the woman ask, now sitting at a table several feet away. The boy seems to consider the question seriously.
“It was much better than Lake Storey at home,” he rattles off. “Did you see the sand castle I made? Are we staying here longer or we going back again to Walt Disney World to ride some more rides? My favorite was the time trip in the golf ball thing–‘member that?” The woman agrees with the drum of Henry’s voice while checking her watch, wondering whether her husband was lost in the restroom. She then glimpses the little girl with dark tangles by the window, staring back at them with uncertainty. A question comes to the mother as she sees her reemerged husband, now in line for coffee.
“Henry, how would you like a little sister like that, someone to play with?” It is better, she reasons, to let her son know sooner than later, but in small steps to let him warm to the idea, that she had recently found out the family would be increasing. Henry is thrown from his thoughts of sea shells and twirling tea cups by this odd question, and looks over at the little girl. He can’t say, because he doesn’t know much about girls being good playmates. Barbies are NOT fun.
He has little time to consider this important issue though, before Marley’s father offers her his hand and leads the little girl out the door and into the Florida sunshine.
Something about Ocean Beach speaks to Henry more than any other part of San Diego. Fittingly, the little bohemian bubble had been discovered by him completely by accident, during one of his many walking excursions. Now the sandy, sleepy enclave was a regular escape from the Point Loma sonar school a few miles away, the tiny Naval base on the opposite side of the thin strip of peninsula.
This Illinois boy could not hope to fit the easy coastal vibe without years of training. He must be the only one today not wearing sandals, but no matter. Here he is, for the briefest of moments, somewhere he could imagine a viable, future civilian life: a regular at the reggae club Williams, tanned a well-stubbled, walking bare-chested down the main street in nothing but trunks, flip-flops and sunglasses.
His is brought back to reality as a car edges out from the intersection, threatening to go anyway. Must not be a local. Surveying the lone strip to the town, few places are open this Thursday night. The hour walk from the military base had been enjoyably scenic, but the return trip east had not been earned yet, Henry was sure. How many chances were left, before he would shuffled off to some other naval installation?
Only three dwell in the Starbucks on the corner as he enters. A girl with heavy mascara and blue hair reads poetry on a burgundy couch. Dickinson, by the looks of it. That leaves the tall male with several piercings behind the counter and one other customer, a girl of some interesting ethnicity at a table, buried in enough paperwork that she must be trying to balance the federal budget.
“Coffee, venti please,” Henry asks after crossing the shop, not looking at the menu to appear as if he knew which size was which, while not remembering which size is which. Handed a massive Starbucks cup in no time, he wonders how big the Cabolli must be. Crazy place.
The black of the coffee pleads for creamer, and he pours a generous portion. That is when he turns and, not realizing his proximity to the studious girl, stumbles past her crossed legs. The venti becomes a large at best, most tumbling with a full-bodied aroma to the tiled floor.
“I’m so sorry,” Henry sputters to a startled, wet pair of legs, before his eyes moved up to the legs’ face. The legs’ face’s brain at the moment was most concerned with whether coffee had landed on a single sheet of the tree on her table. “Here, I’ll get some napkins,” he promises, already snatching them from dispensers with both hands, then making as quick work as he can of the mess.
“I’m okay,” the girl hurries, using a napkin of her own to mop a few drop off her ankle. “It’s just a spill, I think I’ll be okay.” Normally this would be the cue that escape is now possible, but instead he waits for moment, a large ball of damp napkins in his hand. Instead he takes a seat across from her.
“I hope I didn’t ruin your work, you look like you’re been at it for days,” Henry says as she shuffles one of the many stacks, he only then seeming to take in all in the work she’s done. “I’m a pretty good writer too, if you need something redone.”
“Well, it’s only been the better part of a day, anyway.”
“Here? All day in a Starbucks?” I really am sorry,” he replies. She pauses for the first time to give him a good look.
“No, no, not with all this. This morning it was all lectures and such at this convention I’m in town for.”
“Downtown,” Henry safely guesses.
“Right. All for an internship I don’t even know if I’ll be offered. Still up in the air, actually, all of it, but I’ve got to make the best impression.” She has now dismissed all the piles in front of her. Henry takes the moment to quickly dispose of the still dripping napkinball to better wipe her mind of his gaff.
“Oh, which college?” he asks, taking a sip of his cup.
“It’s called Sweet Briar.”
“With a name like that it can’t be anyone out here in the West.” he says with little inner conviction.
“It’s a girls’ college in Virginia, near Lynchburg.” Virginia. Virginia is very far away, Henry confides to the half-filled cup he holds.
“How do you like it?” he offers, the next most obvious question, yet the girl now seems eager for a little conversation as a break from her toil.
“Aside from its being in the middle of nowhere, it’s okay. I’ve been waiting to try something new, go in another direction.” A slight smile emits from her. Henry lightly wonders if she might be coming to southern California. “I looked into a few historically black colleges recently, a school in Hampton, but I’ve decided to return to Sweet Briar for my junior year.” Oh well, the few seconds were nice, he reasons. A moment of silence between them.
“I’m sorry,” he says for the second time, reaching across the table. “My name is Henry.” They shake like five-minute friends, her hand soft and strong, confident.
“Marley.” Her smile broadens. “So, what do you do here, Mr. Henry?”
“I’m going to a school for sonar, at Point Loma near here,” and adds, “Spilling coffee on strangers is just a night thing I do.” She laughs at this, and it sounds very good and real, even musical to him.
“What school is that?” Marley asks, considering, and sightly confused.
“Um, well, it’s not a school like a university, really.” Tread slowly, Henry tells himself, but there is no stable footing to be had. “I’m in the Navy.” His stomach clenches.
“Really? My parents were in the Air Force, both of them.” Now it is her turn to ask a softball. “Have you enjoyed it?” Suddenly completely comfortable, an internal clutch in Henry is released. He leans a little closer, his eyebrows lifting a hint.
“Can you tell you? Not at all, actually,” he reveals to her with a grin. It is good to say. Henry gives her the other side of him: “This isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing. It was sort of a mistake–an interesting one, yes–and one that eventually will come to an end. With few regrets. What I really want to do?” Here Henry pauses a moment. “I want to write. Maybe I ever have the clichéd Great American Novel bouncing around me, waiting to come out.” She seems to have gained an entirely new respects that second for this Henry, someone she hadn’t expected to meet at a coffee joint near the little stop by the bus route a hotel map had called Ocean Beach.
“So why don’t you? You can still be writing, even while you’re still in, right?” He chews on this for moment, and concludes she is right. ‘Is this stranger inspiring me right now, as we share a table at a Starbucks,’ he wonders? He replies she is right. “You don’t have more enlistment time left, do you?” she questions, hoping the best for him. Henry’s spirits drop suddenly, cold and blue.
“Four years.” Choke. She is noticeably sorry for asking the question. “Yeah, they have me heading for Osaka, Japan in a few months, around November. To a frigate called the Vandergrift.” Henry wishes he has a new, dry napkinball to pull at slightly. The conversation has been killed, and the two sit in silence across from one another for a moment longer.
“Well, the time will go by quickly for you,” she tries in an attempt at clipped positivity. He wishes she hadn’t, yet nods in agreement at the same, stirring cold coffee.
“To making the best of it,” Henry tries with a sincere smile, focusing on just being there, in the cafe, pleased to be experiencing at least the beginning of a much-needed, real conversation, raising his cup an inch or two in toast. In another life he’d sit and talk with this Marley about her origins, her travels, her taste in music, her thoughts on the just emerging photographs from Abu Grahib and the coming presidential election. He’d like to have an excuse to look at her dark eyes a while longer. How far away was Lychburg from Osaka, really?
“Well, I should let you get back to work now,” Henry says in a tone that comes from somewhere deep in his chest. Marley gives him the biggest smile yet and extends her hand a final time, wishing luck. “Goodbye, Marley.”
When will Fate ever finally allow him a girl like that?
Marley Benton is smiling to herself as she sets down a cup of coffee, soaking in a glorious revelation. It had exploded on her just that very morning, while stepping out of her home and entering the warm sunlight of her garden: she was happy.
Happiness? It had been a question like no other, something in the back of her mind for as long she had known her name. It had never been the overriding goal of her life–no, not ever close–yet on the rare occasion it would corner her mind, posing this issue of happiness to it. Finally she had her answer.
She doesn’t mind that is had taken years to be certain; it was an important point not to be rushed, she decides as she brushes a strand of grey hair from her face. She is now sitting in the small Starbucks across from the park she liked to visit in the afternoons, contemplating whether ordering some cake was warranted.
Better than simply knowing her happiness was understanding what it had been to make her so. It had been her entire life, from beginning to end; everything had contributed to her new sense of lightness and well-being. Even the early, rough times when she had secretly doubted, even with the great effort she had put forth, or the difficult years spent with Neal in Lisbon. If not for every scratch and bruise as well, as knew this morning would never have occurred. No triumph had ever been wrapped in secret joy; it had just made her hungrier to test her will once again and the limits of the world. Hell, she was going diving off the Great Coral Reef to celebrate her 69th birthday! Australia was the last box to mark, and it would be complete, her life. It didn’t matter that she had always felt drawn to the Land Down Under, especially in her early thirties; she would be making the visit, finally.
It all made sense now: the accumulation of thousands of well-spent days were the sum of her fully-lived life. Her happiness stemmed from the countless wonders she had seen with her own eyes, content she had lived as well as a mortal might. Two marriages come and gone; one a mistake yet one quite satisfying, even lovely. Yes, even the mistakes had been gloriously made, Katherine Hepburn to the last.
She need only ask herself where the Navajo Reservation of her beloved New Mexico might be today without her efforts, without the foundation she had formed more than thirty year ago, it’s mission a guarantee every home would be equipped with running water and electricity. It had been so successful she had no choice but to tackle social health care. She is lost in memories now, back at the groundbreaking ten years ago of the native clinical that would bare her name, the Marley Benton Navajo Health Center–the crowning achievement of her long toils. It had all been with it, and she was a peace with all of her days. What more could the universe call on her to do?
It is then that she returns to the moment, suddenly aware that a server behind the counter is asking, wide-eyed, if a man in the corner is okay. She turns just in time to see an older man slump from his chair to the cold floor beneath. There was only one other customer in the store during this slow afternoon, a young construction worker from the bank going up around the block, and she knew she didn’t have much time.
At the man’s side in the next instant, she evaluates him quickly, her veteran eyes diagnosing the sweating brow and shallow breath before her. Without hesitation she loosens a few of the shirt buttons and calls for the startled sever to call Graham Mercy. As she attends she cannot help noting the man she is caring for. His eyes search the ceiling, trying to focus, his mouth slightly open. The tightness makes him unable to speak without great effort, the lines around his mouth and his brow prominent.
His blue eyes then notice her for the first time and they stay, focused on her face. For further comfort she grabs the Aussie Sams jacket from the chair beside her, making a crude pillow to rest his tanned head of white hair on. The ambulance will be another fifteen minutes before arriving, but in that time his breathing calms slightly and his tense body relaxes. His eyes stayed on her the entire time. When the medics arrive the little necklace of shark’s teeth around his neck jingles as he rasps a “Thank you.” It is then that she is asked if she is the wife. No, she replies, he had been sitting alone. As the gurney rises quickly and snaps in place, to be wheeled to the door, she reaches for her bag under her chair and puts twenty dollars down for her one half-empty cup. Then finally she picks up the worn copy of The Snows of Kilimanjaro and the few scrawled pages from his table. No one should ever have to go to the hospital alone, she says to herself as she follows behind the flashing lights.
There is no better place to be people-watching than an airport, and Albuquerque International is packed. Marley Watkins’ mind laughs at the boasted technicality, “International,” being the two daily flights that skip over to Tijuana. From what she can tell Americans fill the entire terminal, a great many now rushing from their just-landed Minneapolis flight to catch their connections throughout the Southwest. Maybe with a longer taste of New Mexico, she thinks, they would rush a little less.
She is following her own good advice this morning, as she usually does, awaiting the plane that will take her on to Atlanta, then to Chapel Hill. Could it really be her imagination playing tricks on her? It’s been a year since leaving for the University of North Carolina, a fearlessly scared freshman? There is little she can remember of the last twelve months that was not tied to her Chemistry classes. She might as well have changed her address to the science building for the many nights she slept there. Hopefully one day she will look back and say it had all been worth it.
As a gaggle of passengers emerge into the terminal from their Denver flight she checks her watch. Nearly forty minutes to go and her back needs walking. Taking a slow stroll, she buys a bag of trail mix and a gossip mag blaring Bennifer Claims Wedding Still On! Now for the caffeine.
A short line at the small Starbucks nestled beneath a bookstore and an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels allows Marley to resume her person viewing. A mountain of a man in a hill-sized suit curses under his breath, a Cabolli soaking his Dell laptop. Across the way a woman’s own coffee is slowly freezing as her stroller-bound daughter demands attention. Marley lightly taps her check card absent-mindedly on the counter as she waits to pay. Then one seat becomes newly available, vacated by the overwhelmed mother. From here she settles in, content to pass the time watching those around her.
A couple are sitting by the large windows allowing a view of the airfield below and a particularly majestic mountain range beyond, piercing the wide haze-blue sky. Are they setting out or just returning? Most definitely at the end of their road, Marley decides. They are both reclining back in their chairs, fat on recent memories, chatting lightly. Marley then decides to make a game of it, trying to construct the lives of these two strangers. Where were they coming from? This seemed evident enough by the looks of the the Hawaiian skirt the woman is wearing, folds of playful, exotic red and blues all the way to her ankles. The man however gives no clues at all, long blond hair peeking out from behind a ballcap. Then she sees it, as the woman lifts a bagel in her hand, a ring sparkling.
There are on their honeymoon. Of course. The girl looks especially joyous, like she could finally breathe for the first time in ages. This scene has now gotten all the more interesting, but the actors in this play begin to shift in her mind. It is now two years later in her imagination, and the man who listened. intently in the airport is doing considerably less than he did before that ring. She has gained weight. He works more, she eats regularly alone, and one night, needing more, she cheats on him in a moment of weakness. That is how it will be, and nothing can change it, as surely as in a crystal ball. This poor couple–they have no idea the hell before them, probably just as soon as they arrive home, Marley imagines. The new bride’s laughter reaches her from across the room.
No, she is being too hard on them; they seem nice enough, even look good together. Marley herself is still figuring out what relationships were even for, what the benefits are. The closeness alone makes her shudder. But how can she help it? Who has ever been there for her to change her mind, to pave another road for her to travel down? It is decided: Marley Watkins will keep her harsh but safe image until another, better is created for her.
The young wife is in the middle of a story, and then, for the briefest of instants there a slightening in the man’s eyes, a wince. If she is retelling a portion of their trip, she might be recalling when he had left the specially ordered reservations for the helicopter tour of Kohala on the hotel’s beside table. The mistake he made could even be a joke now at this point between the two, a harmless ribbing that will be retold for years, whatever the real story was, but a wince nonetheless.
“Excuse me?” a male voice said right in front of Markey a moment later, and she comes to from her dazing to see the husband directly in front of her. “Would you mind taking a picture? We’re heading home after our honeymoon in Hawaii.” Marley smiles, buying time to recover, accepting the camera. Smiles, a click, and the couple in the picture will remain happy forever. Handing the camera back, she takes a last look at the couple she knows so well.
“A honeymoon does not a marriage make,” she coins on the spot; liking the sound of that, she intends to use it in the future. But then she has a change of heart, and a swelling of sympathy. Would she want another to poke such pins into a future of hers? Maybe they will live together for a long time, perhaps they will honor their vows. She decides finally it is best to optimistic. For them, and for her.
Who does she think she is? A little person, that’s what. Tiny, microscopic, getting in the way of those that really have a knack for this. Jealous too. You could see it in her eyes, easily, with every passing day it had built up and up. Who did she think she was? Picking on a student. That only proves her own inadequacy with the field she is supposed to be teaching. What an unprofessional manner for a person in her profession to act in–she needed to be be told that, just as it happened, in front of the whole class. Who does she think she is? After all, we’re paying for these classes in the first place–she’s working for the betterment of the students, not the other way around. If only the semester would end, yet it is only October. The bitch. Just who does she think she is?
To the sounds of Tegan & Sarah playing on her Ipod, Marley is the picture of calm as she quietly types a practical that is due the next day.
“No matter which way we go…”
Click, click, click.
“No matter when way you stay…”
“Get out of my mind, out of my mind, out of my mind…”
Click, click, delete, delete, delete, delete.
“Excuse me…” the server asks of her. It is enough that Marley takes the ‘phones for her ears, now annoyed to have been interrupted. This practical is never going to be finished at this rate! She raised her eyebrows to indicate she’s waiting to be spoken to. “Sorry to bother you. It’s about a half an hour ’til closing. Would you like anything else?” The server seems to have caught on to her mood, taking a bit a step back.
“I haven’t asked for anything else,” her voice rises with every word, “so I would say no.” The server reddens, then coincidentally, quickly finds some work to do at the far end of the counter. Immediately Marley feels bad about snapping–yet she had been interrupted mid internal rant, and isn’t there a law people aren’t liable for their actions for ten seconds after being in a daze? If not, there should be! …Well, what’s done is done, and besides, he’s probably forgotten about it already, still far on the other side. Two poorly-constructed sentences later she looks up again. Great, now her conscious wasn’t letting her get work done either. First the instructor, and now this. She takes a glance around. With twenty-five minutes to go she is the only customer left, and the server has taken to reading a textbook, leaning on his work counter next to the cappuccino machine. The title on the cover reads Problems and Solutions on a Global Scale. She look down to her practical’s title: “The Question of Medical Problems, Solutions Addressed Globally.” Damn.
“Um, hey, I really wouldn’t mind another coffee, if I could get it,” Marely calls in her her nicest voice possible. For an instant it seems like the server doesn’t connect the voice with the person sitting fifteen feet away, but then he reaches for the pot and brings it over.
“We’re having a special on decaf,” he jokes casually, ready to jump back if need be.
“I really am sorry about that.” she confesses, to get it, and a lot of other frustrations out. “Been a bit of a rough day.”
“I thought perhaps that was it,” he replies smiling, setting the pot back on a burner. His job finished he turns back to his book.
“If only I could get this paper written, though,” she says to the computer screen. “It’s all about the health care issues we face commonly as a planet.” The page he is ready is creased and placed on the counter.
“I could try to help, I have a degree in English.” Marley hadn’t expected this, and for a moment thought better of him seeing her work after all.
He can see her questions, and it is one he is accoustomed to answering. “Why I am a working the late shift of Starbucks in beautiful Hampton? I used to be in the Navy, but not more than a month after arriving over in Norfolk I had a knee inury. Just the lastest turn, didn’t surpise me at all. It was really a slow process, getting out, but I was given a medical discharge in August,” he recites, as if by memory. “Ever since then I’ve been working here part time and taking classes at Old Dominion for my MA as part of the G.I. Bill.” It’s not the kind of story you’d normally expect from a Starbucks barista. “Want me to take a look at it, your paper?” He seems like a very nice guy, in fact. Marley debates it.
“I would, but I’m a little skittish about people reading my word. I know you’d be able to improve it though.” She’s a little impressed. She takes the time to read his name green name tag. “Henry.” Her coffee is gone again, and takes one more before close, to get through the coming night and her practical.
“So, you’re living here in Hampton, then?” she asks, stirring her new drink. If anything, her mind was at least off her horrible class experiense, and she was calming down.
“Yes, probably for at least another year until the master’s is done, and then who knows? But it needs to be close to here, though.” Marley asks why as she is licking the coffee off her spoon. Maybe on an off night, or on a weekend when he’s free–
“To be close to my daughter,” Henry replies.
The Indian Ocean belongs to Marley Watkins. He arms pull her body through the waters, as strong motions from her legs propel her deeper into the crystal-clear water. Heaven is not in the sky, but under the sea, surely, she thinks. A vibrant yellow-striped Mau fish flits past her elbow, a bed of wavering crimson sponges just below, shimmering in the small patches of sunlight. How ironic can it be that at the moment a person finally feels most alive they are most content to die? A burst of bubbles from her face mask clouds her vision for the moment, and her mind flashes to her apartment in Albuquerque, seeing herself sitting by a phone for three months for a call that never came. The clock on the wall read 8:30 as she made a pledge: if it did not ring before the night was out she would forget everything about it, and wipe her slate clean, because life is too short to be on the sidelines. And now, as her twenties are about to expire, she is here.
Shortly more than sixteen minutes later her tank is nearing the red and it is time to return to shore. With a quick flick of her thighs she begins to rise to the surface, finally reappearing some fifty yards off the white sands of Perth. The skies have become much darker, and continues to blacken.
No sooner has she taken the first steps on land there is a low rumbling from the west, behind her. The beaches are nearly deserted as she pulls the tank from her back, grasping it then with her right hand. She feels a drop on her shoulder, then the very top of her head. The woman is then nearly caught in an instantaneous downpour, and she streaks for the nearest shelter.
Henry Clark, a man of thirty-four, sees the woman while sitting in the open air coffee shop that more resembles a bamboo hut, the palm fronds of the roof begin to flutter as the wind picks up. She is heading his way, her black wetsuit clinging to her body as she runs. He moves from his place at the counter, and runs out into the chilled wind and rain and reaches out to her for the tank that is slowing her down, before they both retreat to the large hut. Out of the elements, Marley collapses into a wooden stool, gasping and laughing. The ocean han’t managed to make her so wet.
“Alright there?” Henry calls over to her as he sets down the tank with a clang, then returns to her. She nods. “Welcome to the rainy season. Should only last another four months,” he says happily, evidently not the least aware anymore of the storm all around them. The shop was large and roomy, now filling slightly with a few more stranded, sopping souls. “Care for some coffee, you need to be warmed up,” he suggests briskly, wiping his forehead of water, his long blonde hair stingy and nearly ending the nape of his neck.
“Coffee? Here?” she answers, thinking this is completely out of place for a beach.
“Oh that, I know I know. I thought it strange at first too. But most of the drinks here are iced–couldn’t ever tell this is Starbucks, right?” Without waiting he orders two Cabollis. She looks around. It is the bares of places, almost entirely made of wood, including the only sign that it is a Starbucks at all, a crudely carved facsimile of the mermaid logo behind the wooden slat that served as the counter. Before she knows it the man is handing her a giant hot coffee and a towel from his bag. Hers was still far down the beach, being pounded by rain. It only takes a few moments to feel much warmer and drier. He waits, while she looks out onto turbulent seascape, grey and threatening, like her swim of a few minutes ago had been a dream.
“They can spring up out of nowhere, during this part of year, if you don’t know what to watch for,” the man says, still wearing his rain-darkened green shirt, drops of water off a necklace of sharks teeth. He is looking out over the water too.
“You aren’t native, are you?” she finally says, still looking ahead. “I don’t hear an accent. American?”
“I suppose, if it matters where one is from, then I would be American. We don’t get many when we’re out of season, so you seem to an exception. What brings you here?”
“A trek across the Outback.”
“Oh really? I still haven’t done that. Well, you made it, so you must have a few stories.” His features bore the first faint signs of age as he spoke, a line at the corners of his mouth and two small creases at each eye when he smiled. His tan made his eyes all the more blue. “…Alice Springs being the only thing worth mentioning between here and Brisbane, and it’s just an old filling station. What would make a woman, whom I am guessing committed no crime, decide to cross Australia by herself?”
“It’s a really long story,” she declines his gentle prodding, swishing what remained of her coffee.
“Every story is,” he agrees, pausing. “Because it’s all just one story, after all. One beginning, and one ending. Or, perhaps one beginning and many endings. Take my story-long as hell, and that’s just by telling it one way.” He has her curiosity.
“One way–what else is there?”
“Well, take this storm. It was going to happen regardless, but you might have run to another shelter if you had swum just a little more, or a little less. After you chose this one, I could have sat down on that stool over there and not helped. And I wouldn’t be talking to you now. That’s at least a hundred stories right there. If only I were as prodigious a writer, but my words come much slower. Anyway, this is all about what I don’t know, and I don’t know if this will be the only time we will ever meet, and that’s what I call the advantage of now.”
“You think we’re given only one chance?”
“Possibly. One chance, a million–who knows?” he says, turning to her. “I might have met you when I was eight, or might have met you again at 73, but the chance could be I might’ve been much different, if meeting you here right now were to affect my life somehow. I don’t wager you’ve ever made it many times to Illinois in your life.”
“Only once or twice.”
“Are you’re from the Southwest, right, far from where I probably was while in the Navy.”
“So this is likely the first chance I have to make the best impression. At least I didn’t spill anything on you.” Marley laughs at this image, the towel slipping a bit from her shoulders. As they have talked the rains have dwindled, departing nearly as fast as they came. Henry glances down. “Do you need any more?” She shakes her head slightly no. He takes both cups into his hands and to the counter.
“It seems the storm has passed,” she says, disappointed. This has been the best she has been treated in a long time. They both stand quietly, looking out the calming sea.
“I didn’t get a call,” she murmurs.
“Sorry?” She exhales a bit then inhales, her shoulders rising back slightly.
“Three months ago I made a promise to myself, late one night. A guy I had been seeing, named Neal, actually told me I was supposed to give up what I was doing to be with him. Wealthy, and he wanted me at home. After everything I had done, everything, all of my life planning. It was the maddest I’ve even been, and that’s saying something. You’re lucky to have not met me that night. Anyway, I told him he had to apologize, but he didn’t that night, and I knew suddenly that for all of my accomplishments and everything, that ultimately there were some things in my life, about how I see everything, I had to straighten out. Within a week I was signed up for a safari across this entire continent, because it would give me strength, just knowing I had done it. From Sydney to Brisbane to, yes, Alice Springs to here, and I feel so refreshed now, having traveled the entire Outback.” Marley is lost in her own thoughts of the moment, reliving the pain and success at the same time, the thrilling, terrifying adventures that had just come to an end.
“You seem like a pretty amazing person,” Henry says quietly, still looking out. “And I wish you all the best.” As Marley looks over Henry shoulders his bag, the material of his green shirt still damp. “I better get some dry clothes,” he adds. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
For a second Marley looks after him, then turns back to look out to the waters out more time. What is there for her to accomplish next?
“Of course,” begins a light voice behind her, Marley quickly turning around, “like I said, this might be the only chance I get to meet you, so I might later regret not asking you to join me for dinner. The freshest catch, the finest view, and the best desserts on the western coast,” he offers as he approaches again with a smile.
“How do you know I haven’t refused you countless times before?” Marley asks, her face bright.
“That very well could be,” Henry laughs, as they walk out of the rain-pummeled Starbucks together, her tank slung over her shoulder. “In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. But those refusals are for other lives, and this is ours. Besides, aren’t we both two very deserving people? And if not us, then who?”
“One question,” she says, “You aren’t married, or have a daughter, or something, or–”
“Not even a pet guinea pig.”
“And the reason you came back just now?” Marley inquires, her eyes light in the setting sun.
“What else could I do? Anything less and the universe would be laughing at us.”