You’re not supposed to be here, Mandy thought to herself as her Jeep crept slowly into a parking stall in front of her favorite coffee shop. She had expected the brick facade to fill her with comfort, like a reunion with an old friend, but what she felt was more akin to deja vu. A passing familiarity, the sense that she’d been there before in a dream. In the past, it had been a weekly destination for her. Every Sunday, on Cheat Day, she bought a large latte with whipped cream on top and curled up on the couch with a good book for at least an hour. Occasionally she would get a refill, though she usually regretted it. She suddenly recalled that her last visit had been one such occasion, and her stomach clenched up, steeling itself against the oncoming sugar invasion. That visit had been about six months ago. A lot of things had changed six months ago.
The shop had been built inside of an old industrial building, tall and square, with nine-foot tall windows covering its length. In the past, Mandy had thought it was hip and charming. Now it seemed decidedly cold and unwelcoming. She had expected -- hoped for, really -- the building to be nearly deserted, but through the massive windows she could see at least ten people standing in line. Her stomach tightened again at the sight, and for a few moments she felt nauseous.
Get ahold of yourself, she thought. You drove all the way here, just get in and get out. It’s Cheat Day after all.
A pile of brown and orange leaves made a satisfying crunch as she stepped out of her Jeep. The sound was comforting, and her stomach settled as she took a deep breath of chilly Fall air. It was her favorite season, and the entire reason for her illicit excursion. The Summer had been easy to endure indoors. She hated the Sun, the way it bore down on her like a great omniscient eye, illuminating her every move, casting shame on every wasted moment. She had drawn her curtains to stop it flooding her living room, cranked the A/C, and enjoyed the first several months of solitude.
But when Autumn came, she longed to be outside. The clouds masked the passing of time, the cool air felt fresh in her lungs, and the falling leaves suggested a cycle of cleansing, the shedding of dead skin to make way for new life. It made her feel young, vibrant, and eager for adventure. And with the changing of the seasons came a sinking realization: She could no longer sit in her darkened apartment and pretend the outside world didn’t exist. She craved air, she craved signs of outside life, she craved anything but the same daily routine she’d been stuck in for what suddenly felt like eternity.
She craved normalcy in the form of a pumpkin spice latte from her favorite coffee shop.
I should just use the drive-through, she thought as she stood in the building’s looming shadow. It’s probably safer. But she yearned to be inside the building, to bask in the scents of coffee grounds and freshly baked scones. She approached the door and noticed two new signs. The first read: “Face Coverings Required!” And below that: “Try one of our new Fall Drinks!” Pictured on the latter sign were three lattes with distinctly Fall flavors: Salted Caramel, Apple Cider, and of course, the quintessential Pumpkin Spice.
It was a funny combination, seeing the two signs together like that. Put on your protective equipment and come order a pumpkin-flavored danger drink! She chuckled in spite of herself, and tried to ignore the re-surging tension in her gut. She pulled a cloth mask out of her jacket pocket, looped it around her ears, made sure to cover her nose and chin, and entered the shop.
She was greeted not by the smell of coffee and scones, but by bad breath. It was an acidic smell, like sulfur and spoiled milk. She suddenly realized she’d forgotten to brush her teeth that morning. The stench made her eyes water, and just as she was about to turn around and abort the mission altogether, another customer abruptly entered behind her, and she decided to hold her position, attempting desperately not to exhale from her mouth. At least I showered this morning, she thought, which had also become a rare occurrence.
Feeling committed, she surveyed the room. The space which had once been filled with wooden tables and chairs was now barren, all furniture removed except for the couches and armchairs, which had plastic signs stating “Please Do Not Sit” erected on them. There were small circles applied to the floor, each about six feet apart, but nobody was standing on them. The ten or so customers ahead of Mandy were entirely too close to each other, and she counted at least five uncovered noses.
You shouldn’t be here, she repeated internally, but it was too late. She was already inside, already exposed, already cheating, she might as well leave with the twenty ounce cup of normal that she came for.
A barrier of Plexiglas had been erected at the counter, with a small opening at the bottom for passing drinks and currency. Time seemed to slow as she watched the transactions occur, the fingers of customer and employee grazing each other almost sensuously, seeming to relish the brief second of human contact. She forced herself to look away, for fear that she might become sick. The sight of hands touching disturbed her even more than her own toxic mouth fumes.
When finally she reached the front of the line, she was greeted by a muffled voice.
“Wha cah we may foh oo?”
Mandy was surprised how much energy it took to answer. It occurred to her that she couldn’t remember the last time she had spoken to someone out loud.
“Lar pum-hin spie lah hay, pease.” she managed through the cloth.
She pulled out her debit card, and her pulse quickened as the cashier extended their hand under the Plexiglas. A little too urgently, Mandy slapped her card down on the counter and slid it forward, then pulled her hand back as quickly as possible. She breathed a sigh of relief when the card was returned to her in the same fashion.
“Pih it up oh-er theh!” They gestured toward the pick-up station.
Mandy’s heart rate resumed its climb, and a silent alarm started in her mind as she waited for her drink. She was beginning to deeply regret this venture, and she needed to get out as quickly as possible. After about five minutes, a tall Styrofoam cup appeared on the counter. She snatched it up and made for the door almost in a frenzy, praying she didn’t look like an absolute lunatic to the impossibly calm folks still in line.
Now back in her Jeep, she yanked off the cloth mask and breathed in delicious clean air. Then she pulled the cap off of her latte and brought it up to her nose. Finally, her nostrils filled with the welcome scents of espresso, pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. The rotten egg aroma that she’d endured in the shop began to feel like a distant memory, and her body relaxed into a deep calmness. The first sip was immaculate, encompassing her tongue and throat like a warm blanket, then settling into her belly like a purring kitten.
In that moment, Mandy was overwhelmed with the feeling that everything was going to be okay. The last six months felt like a warm-up; She was ready for round two. That latte was all she needed to keep going, to make the sacrifices that needed to be made, to bear the reality that so many others denied.
But before she pulled out of that parking lot, she replayed the harrowing journey through the coffee shop in her mind, and made a very important agreement with herself: No more Cheat Days.