A few weeks ago, there was a bonfire at David's house - six or so of us balancing on old packing crates to keep above the mud, swigging beers and gazing at the stars. During a lull in the conversation, I asked Meredith, "What would you say to your fifteen-year-old self if you were to run into her?"
In the silence, everyone else looked at me, too. It was late enough that cheesy cocktail-party-esque conversation-starters were possible, apparently. "Well..." David said, and we all sat back, looked into the fire, and thought about our answers.
When I was fifteen, I applied at the Caribou Coffee in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. In the interview, the manager - Elke, long black hair and an arresting manner - looked at me with laser-blue eyes and said, "Why do you want to work here?"
I was, and am, not very good in interviews. "Two of my friends said it was cool." Alaina and Maggie H showed up places carrying massive free drinks, their pockets full of tips. The manager waited, and I said, thinking it'd help, "Plus I don't really like coffee." I wouldn't steal, I meant. Back then, coffee was something my father drank, pots of it on Sunday morning with his newspaper. I'd sipped it once and assumed it was something I'd never understand.
"Fine," she sighed. "Come in on Tuesday. Can you get some khaki pants?"
I was thrilled. I would be working the closing shift from 4 pm to 11, as well as weekend mornings, 6-12. That's okay, I thought! It's fine! That's just what Work is like!
This Caribou was a freestanding store, a little brown island just off an exit ramp. Most of its business came from massive SUVs that rushed off the highway and yelled "CAN I HAVE EIGHT CARAMEL COOLERS PLEASE" into the microphone. During several training shifts, it turned out I was hopeless at the bar (not only uncoordinated, but prone to zoning out, terrible at steaming milk, and completely unable to hold multiple ideas or objects in my mind simultaneously), so Elke decided I'd stand at the drive-through register and collect orders.
This, it turned out, was harder than it seemed. The headset I wore tended to crackle and pop, the voices at the order-screen were nearly inaudible, so I had to crank it up as high as possible, wincing at the electronic ding that meant there was a new car. "Welcome to Caribou Coffee!" I would cry, smiling, "what can we get for you today?"
"Medium Garblegarble latte, with garblegarble," the car said. I punched my mitten at the screen and hoped.
Sometimes it would be fine - little cars were happy to accept whatever large mint-flavored coolers I shoved at them - but on occasion, I'd hand drinks into an SUV, and the woman driving would be the type to take an experimental sip. Her highlighted hair swung at her cheekbones. Her face got all knotted up.
"Noooo," she'd say, and I knew it was all over. "No, this is definitely full-fat. Right? Take a sip," to the friend next to her, and pass it over. Of course the friend would agree. "Full-fat," she said, her lips pursed, and my stomach fell.
Sending a drink back, in the drive-through, was a horrible business. The baristas were generally frantic, trying to keep up with an endless flood, and our line stretched back through the parking lot, I could see over the monitor. In those moments, I would be torn between Elke's voice that said "Act with speed!" and Elke's voice that said "Please the guest!" and generally my innate will to please would win out. "I'm so sorry to hear that! I'll get you a skim one!" I tried to act like it wasn't my fault.
"With sugar-free syrup," she said, pleased with herself. As I turned to set it aside, she'd add, "But be sure that you add the extra whip!"
They'd get angry if I shut the window again, I thought. I let the heat from the store sweep out over the line of cars, felt the Arctic wind that blew off the highway sneak around the SUV and whip my face. Finally my co-worker thunked the drink down next to me. Skim-sugar-free-whip-on-top latte firmly in hand, the SUV pulled away in a haze of smoke fumes and righteous fury, and straightaway the next customer drove up, usually a minvan full of children, all wanting coolers. At the wheel, the mother was already saying "Excuse me, I don't know if you realize, but we've been waiting for about ten minutes back there..."
I don't know how I wasn't fired. Certainly, I worked there for a year and a half and was never promoted, never made shift supervisor or anything like that, but neither did they edge me out. Apart from the fact that I didn't steal money, I think my only asset was my ability to keep calm when strange things happened. Once, a truck roared up to the window without having stopped at the speaker, and the man inside yelled, "Hey, did you know that Caribou is owned by the Saudis now?"
It was true that a Bahrain bank had just bought a majority share in Caribou, I'd read it in a section of my dad's paper while eating a bowl of Quaker Oats that morning, and so I said, "Yes..."
"Well soon enough they'll have you WEARING A BURKA!" and he pointed his finger at me and sped off.
On another occasion, I was lucky enough to be working the counter on a Sunday morning. An old woman hobbled up, her hair artificially sandy, her lips drawn on with chocolate-colored pencil. She set a rolled-up poster on the counter and unrolled it with arthritic hands. It was for the movie version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." The woman looked up at me. Her eyes didn't quite focus. She said, "The Lion is Jesus!" and then turned around, hobbled out. She didn't order anything, either.
I stayed because my friends were there, and because, by the time I'd been working there for a month, I was addicted to the free coffee. When we made Coolers, there was always something left over, and I'd take them like shots, the little Dixie cups of sludgy milky coffee-shake. I graduated to lattes, then to cups of straight black coffee. Nobody cared, at the time, and especially nobody cared late at night, when it'd only be three of us working, making smoothies for cars full of stoned teenagers - I'd get blatant, dig my hands into the bowl of Snickers bits, snarf chocolate-covered espresso beans, make new and interesting drink combinations. (Raspberry-vanilla-mint? Sure! Lemon anything? Why not?) I liked the illusion of freedom: here I was, left alone in this corporate entity I'd visited since I was a little girl (hot chocolates with the gummy monster on top when my dad splurged on coffee on weekends).
I kept thinking, for a while, that I'd get better at the job. I'd whip out drinks and chat and smile with people, earn the legendary twenty-dollar tips. Men would flirt with me and I'd just act mysterious. Customers would stop just to know my name, that counter-girl full of witty comebacks. But it was never that kind of job. It wasn't a place at which one could rise to the top - rather, it was a temporary holding pen for teenagers, a resting zone for thirty-ish middle managers, who blew in and blew out.
After several months, Elke was fired. The rumor was that she was an alcoholic, but I think it was just too perfect, what with her name and all, and plus, I'd never seen her drunk, just forceful. She was replaced by a kind man who tried to get us Christmas off and who was then told by Corporate that we had to stay open; he, in turn, was replaced by a pinched Dwight Shrute type, who took away our free drinks and made us dump expired scones in a garbage can instead of taking them home.
I quit, at that point, but I still dream about it, sometimes. I am afraid of going back there. Never since have I experienced that level of frantic activity, those sinking pits of despair. Writing may, at times, be tough, but it's a slower, more indolent kind of tough - you're failing nobody but yourself when you don't do a great job of it.
That night at the bonfire, I imagined pulling up to the Caribou and being confronted, at the drive-through window, by a young version of myself: a girl wearing heavy foundation to mask the acne scars, with hair that looks like it hasn't been washed in a while, eyebrows that she still shaves in the middle rather than plucking, dark-black eyeliner. She looks scared. It's been a late night and she has a calc test in the morning, something that gives her the same kind of anxiety as this does, all the cars in the drive-through, rushing at her like equations. I can tell that she wants to be at home. Her hands shake from the cold, from cold drinks, from too many chocolate-covered espresso beans.
In my fantasy, I pick up my medium-sized light roast with a little bit of cream, and as our hands touch, I say, "You know, work doesn't suck like this forever."
"Excuse me?" she says, raising her hairy brow and smiling in the way she does when people act crazy around her.
"It gets better. I mean, it's not like you're a bullied gay kid, or anything, on the whole your life's pretty great, you've got a horse and parents who are nice people and...." I'm rambling. I'm losing her. I clear my throat. "Okay. I'm just saying: you probably should go to Morris, even though it's in the middle of nowhere."
"What's Morris?" I forget, she's a junior, she isn't even thinking about college yet, and if she is she's still laboring under the delusion that she's gonna go to Harvard. With those calc grades? Please.
"You'll understand later. It's great, I promise. Okay, go to Morris, go on that date, move to Germany when Nader asks you, and then, in a year, please apply to Iowa... Basically, just do all the stuff you're going to do without me helping you. God, am I fucking this up, the space-time continuum?" I take an anxious sip of my coffee. Way too much cream.
"Anyway: in, like, eight years, Jessie, your job is literally going to be this. You tell your fifteen undergrads to meet you outside when they're done filling out course evals. In a couple of minutes, they trot out, grinning at you; you're already there, sitting on the grass underneath three shapely little trees. Everyone's happy because it's May. You all sit in a circle and you talk about a really brilliant short story, then you break up into groups and they discuss their own writing. Sure, they kind of clam up when you come around, but that's to be expected, you're the prof, they don't want to seem dumb."
"Okay," she says, and I can tell she's getting nervous, what if other cars come, and so I wrap this up. It's sort of a self-congratulatory wank, anyway. "The point is: in eight years, you're going to have the best job in the world."
"But does it have free coffee?" She smiles at me, sort of side-long. She reads too much fantasy and has, by now, accepted the weirdness of it.
"It does." I sip, and wince, thinking of the Dey House coffee, the viscous black acid that might or might not have been in the pot for a few days. "Just really terrible stuff." I try to reach up and pat her hand, but the Beetle is too short, and maybe if we touched the world would implode, or something. "Take it easy." I still only tip fifty cents, and I hope she's not discouraged by that, and then I roar off into the night to drive to North Carolina and teach seventh-graders about The Magician's Nephew. For a second, I wonder if I have aged horribly, and then put it out of my mind.