Please enjoy this short-story, which I’ll be reading this Thursday, Sept 25, at The Starving Artist (a coffee shop!) Come by for an hour of inspiration and yummy treats from Missoula favorites like Big Dipper and Bernices.
I finish your latte with a wispy furl across the foam: a fancy heart on top.
“Here you go,” I smile and glide the hot cup towards you. Will you notice my heart? Don’t get me wrong; it’s nothing romantic. You’re not my type. . I just wonder if you’ll notice, but your eyes drop, as usual. Your head nods in silent thanks. I glimpse that notebook — the one you always carry tucked under your arm — and you shuffle for your favorite table in the corner. I sigh then go back to work wiping the foaming nozzle clean of its milk mustache. This is the routine. Smile. Concoct. Serve.
That may be the routine, but it’s my habit to make it always about the customers. I’ll flavor our conversations but never go beyond chit-chat. Whatever words I have I serve sparingly. Of course, in Customer Service, I have to leave a bit of myself behind. I work on the periphery of a hundred lives moving in and out of this shop every day. It’s about them, not me. Still, in this place of a thousand encounters with no connections, I wish they would smile a little longer. Not a fake, thank-you-but-I-have-a-million-more-important-things-to-do-than-this, kind of smile. A deep smile that sees all the way through (like dolphins – did you know dolphins can see our bones when we’re underwater with their echo clicks?) I want to be seen like that.
I’m tired of recording my thoughts in this notebook and not seeing any change in my life. I feel like a bottle of champagne stored in a cellar. I’m ready to bubble over if I could just find the right twist and pop the cork. I know my best self is inside, desperate to get out, but apparently these pages aren’t out far enough. I need to do more than just scribble secrets between the lines. I just saw a TED Talk by Brené Brown. She said, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” I guess that’s what I want: courage. Courage to change, but the idea of vulnerability sounds scary.
It could end badly, like the time I tried to join that cycling club. I wanted to reach out and find more girls like me who like to get outside and ride the hills, so I showed up at their meeting (with a pan of brownies as an offering). When it came time to introduce myself, “Hi, my name is…ya-da,ya-da…and I like to ride the trails around here, but I…just….WOMEN!” My arms flung themselves from my sides, like I had just returned from a dessert island to discover a whole, new race of humans (these ones with bumps on the front). Eyes dropped and shoulders angled away. After introductions circled around the room, I grabbed my pan and disappeared.
That’s my experience with vulnerability, but — if it helps me find my best self — I think it would be worth it. Honestly, if I can’t connect with myself, the best I’ll ever do is use others to reflect back to me who I am. I want to be truer than that.
What would the true me look like? I’d spend Saturday mornings trolling the farmers’ market with feathery carrot tops poking out the top of my bag. I’d buy cucumbers so sweet and crisp I’d have to eat them while I shop. My clothes would fit better. I’d give off a high-frequency friendliness. I’d catch myself smiling. I want to be there, instead of here, hiding in my notebook with a latte. Could it be different? Could it?
The last rush of customers for the night is gone, so it’s just you and me in the shop. I like to watch you there, leaning forward like the pen is pulling you into your pages. Every so often, you stop to think and take a sip. I wonder, did you notice the heart pattern I carved into the foam for you this time? Which pattern would it take for you to stay a little longer at the counter? I just want someone to linger. I want to be seen, and have someone stay in grateful thanks, like they would if I coasted through a campground peddling doughnuts. I’d cruise a slow loop in a retrofitted car – something ironic, like a black hearse – and raise droopy campers with wafts of fresh fry dough. They would shuffle towards me – half asleep and half in awe – as I lurch to a stop and pop open the back. I’d sneak that guy a maple bar and that girl a fritter. They would stick around, in blissful loiter, as if to say “Oh, that you’d wake up early to make doughnuts for us. Oh, that you would come all the way out here. Oh, please can you come tomorrow?” They’d ask questions about me. Random, really, but their momentary interest would trade just as well as any currency.
It’s silly, I know – and you should know — I realize I cannot ask for all that and expect to avoid risk. It doesn’t work like that. I’m the one who hasn’t taken the conversation deeper. I haven’t exactly volunteered for vulnerability, even the mild kind. I know this about myself. I also suspect that’s why life pretty much has to slap me alongside the head to offer me a chance to change (which — now that I think of it – only makes me more skittish to risk anything).
The coffee came with a heart in the foam this time. How do they do that? I’d probably not even order a latte – think of all those calories – except I like the surprise etched on top every time. It’s something special, just for me. The fact that it’s a heart this time seems to me no accident. I’ve been thinking that finding myself might be about more than losing weight or becoming some ideal. I think it goes deeper than that. I think I need to learn to love myself. I mean, I don’t hate myself. I don’t even not like myself. I think I love myself so much that I’m steaming mad about not being able to experience that love. I have no idea how. Instead, I eat doughnuts.
I’ve got friends who insist that, “You’re perfect, just as you are!” I want to agree, but something feels off about that. Not the perfect part; the insisting part. If I really love myself like that, why would I have to convince me or anyone else? Feels like trying too hard.
I get the same wonky feeling about unconditional love (the whole “I love you, no matter what” thing). Every time someone says that, I think, What’s the “no matter what?” No matter the 100 pounds I’ve gained? Sure, “no matter what” can numb the sting for a time, but worry festers in the background. What if I gain the weight back? I need something that trumps all that. I want to look in the mirror, see a happy person, and – oh, by the way – I just happen to be my best self. That’s how I want love to come.
Behind the counter here, cups want washing. Out there, spoons crowd the dirty jar, but I don’t care. I’d rather watch you, in the corner, scratching your ankle with your shoe while you write. Mosquito bite driving you crazy? I wouldn’t care if you took off your shoes to douse the itch. If I told you as much, would that be awkward? If I risked invading your bubble, would you respond? I’m not sure you would. I don’t believe it. I’m like a fish who doesn’t believe in water simply because water’s all that’s ever been and, so, all that’s never noticed. Am I the fish or the water? In this book I’m reading by some French philosopher named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, he says, “Everything that rises must converge.” I’m not sure I want to converge, but I do want to poke my head up out of my protective, liquid layer with clear ears to hear the meaning of conversations that have sounded only muffled to me before.
When I think about connection and vulnerability and courage I think about risk or freedom. They’re related somehow. If you think of all the great freedom fighters, they all seemed to start with having the courage to be vulnerable and risk something. There were stakes involved.
Aaahhh — dang mosquito bite, itches like a –
They probably didn’t realize it at the time, but I think they needed to risk something, just to counter all the blowback that would come. That way, amid all the questions and criticism, or even their own self-doubts, they could say, “No, I did the work. I gave what it took.” What should I give? What are my stakes? I’m not out to change the world, but I would like to lose some weight and feel better in my skin. Where does that start? Should I trade treats for celery sticks? Should I give up my lunch hour for a long walk? All that seems tiny, like it’s not enough. No, that’s not it. Dieting and working out help but they’re what come after; after the vulnerability, after the risk, when that cork pops and energy bubbles into action. I mean, when I’m on my deathbed, am I going to say, “By golly, I ate right and exercised!” I don’t think so. Whatever I say, the words will be there because I was vulnerable enough to risk speaking my freedom.
You look lost in thought. Do you need a refill? Should I offer you a free one on me?
How do I speak my own freedom? I don’t have the words yet, but I don’t have to write anything down to know what’s next. The very thing I try so hard to avoid, that’s where I gotta go.
If I came over with a pot and smiled…? I wish I was more of a conversation starter. I’ll just grab the dirty spoons and see if you look over.
I have to look inside, be vulnerable enough to see what I fear most. I must fuse my guts to the backbone of the fear. Understand it. Know it. Sit with it.
Is it a good time to sit down across from you? Too much? Too soon?
Even if it’s uncomfortable, I must let others see me. If I can’t do that, how will I ever see myself?
What if you don’t like what you see? I’m not a friend, just a half-life accessory in this coffee shop. You don’t need to open up your life story to me.
How could I open up? How can I make space for something to break open? I know. This is it.
You’re stopping. You’re closing your notebook, sticking the pen in the spiral edge. Oh, you’re putting on your coat.
Yes, I’m going to do this. This is perfect. Just lay it down.
You’re getting up. You’re leaving.
You’re headed for the door.
Let the door shut. Don’t look back. Just leave it there.
Wait, wait, you left your notebook.
Change requires risk.
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What do you think about being vulnerable and the need for connection?
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