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I’m sitting in my neighborhood coffee shop — the one with all the tattered board games — out for my afternoon chai tea with my 2-year-old, Drake, who gathers all the chess pieces, naming each one as if it were a secret friend. Waiting for my chai because I’ve recently given up coffee, you know, for health reasons, and to rid myself of those manic highs and crashing lows — the point of drinking coffee in the first place. I know I’m better off with my tea and meditative elixirs, but I miss coffee.
Love the taste, the smell, the buzz … but I want to drink it all day.
I wait, listening to Drake’s streaming monologues, while the art chick with the dyed black shag and pierced nose and eyebrow works on my order behind the counter. She’s here afternoons, in her skimpy black tank, smeared red lips and proudly displayed baby-fat midriff. She’s maybe 20, 22. What do I look like to her, I wonder. I’m as lean and suspicious as I was in my 20s. I’ve got on my chunky black shoes, worn bell-bottoms, hair stylishly ragged. Recently got proofed buying beer at Vons. (“They’d proof my mother,” my husband offered.) But I’m feeling good, feeling disguised, feeling … my gaze falls to the hem of my bright-orange polar fleece pullover streaked with dry snot … my sleeve with purple marker and soy milk. A chewed bite of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich clings to my shoulder. There’s no escaping it: I am the polar fleece pullover and its morning souvenirs.
Art Chick looks around the room, then at me. Oh, no, no, wait, I am not orange polar fleece and dried snot. Look at me, I wear your brand of lipstick. She hands my chai to her co-worker, a lanky teen in giant clothes. “This is for the lady with the kid,” she says.
I look around, knowing full well she means me. Me. Hey, that’s not me. I used to wear clean, black, body-hugging shirts. I used to drink black coffee. I’m from New York. Took subways. Only splurged for cabs at 4 in the morning after my second job at a Midtown bar. Lived in Hell’s Kitchen. Coming home late at night, I’d hold a corkscrew clenched tightly in my fist. (If I heard someone too close behind me, I’d slow down, step long
and laugh psychotically, corkscrew poised.)
Later, in Brooklyn, with the boy who would later become my husband, I slept under an old grandma quilt and nylon sleeping bags. Could see and hear the platform trains from bed. So cold in winter, the water pipes banging and wheezing. The night never completely dark, movement never halting, sounds never still.
I blink as Lanky Teen interrupts my ranting daydream with my chai. I catch Drake stuffing a Parcheesi board into my bag — my boy, the reason for my pullover and my peace, my worries and my now-predictable routine, my safe neighborhood, my low-powered career, my joy.
Thank you, young man. Yes, she’s right. Yes, it is I, the lady with the kid. I am the lady with the kid. But know that I still keep a corkscrew in my bag. Just in case.