By Deasy Tirayoh – Emerging Writers 2015
There are many ways of enjoying life; for me it’s quite simple. It’s through a cup of coffee that I have carefully blended myself. Being a barista in a coffee shop is like embracing two pleasures at once: the pleasure of seeing others enjoying coffee and the pleasure of knowing that it’s coffee that I have made myself.
It would always give me a buzz when I saw the smiles of two regular customers who used to while away their afternoon with two cups of Toraja coffee. They always sat at table number 9 near the window. The barista counter is in direct line of sight of their table, and I always stole a glance at them when I wasn’t busy.
I didn’t know what it was that drew them back, always to this coffee shop and always to that same table. One afternoon they even stood outside in the drizzling rain, waiting for table 9 to become available.
I found out, through a customer survey, that their names were Tama and Cleo. Their names and photos are included among the many customer testimonials attached to the wall of the shop.
I wondered if they were a couple.
Once I saw Tama give Cleo a little parcel, which she was thrilled about. Maybe it was her birthday; it wasn’t Valentine’s Day. And I was no less intrigued when one sunny afternoon Cleo arrived in a state of great excitement. The reason was not immediately obvious. Tama greeted her with a congratulatory handshake. I thought maybe she’d won the lottery or received a bonus or something like that. How could I possibly presume to be part of it; all I could do was adjust my radar to try and satisfy my curiosity as I watched them from the barista counter. I did so with a sense of satisfaction, knowing that I had produced not just a cup of my special blend coffee but also a cup of perfection.
I was merely the barista standing behind the counter. They would have been only vaguely aware of my existence. From time to time I’d notice the way Tama and Cleo looked at each other, how they touched each other, shared a joke, became engrossed in conversation, laughed, and sometimes fell silent. They did it all in such a loving way, as if they were indeed a couple.
For me, something else was equally as important as knowing that they were enjoying my Toraja blend coffee. I wanted to provide more than just those two cups. I wanted to become an unforgettable part of their story, not just somebody they knew by the nametag on my chest. I wanted them to react to more than those cups of coffee.
And then came that overcast Saturday. Cleo had been sitting waiting for 15 minutes before Tama hurried in. Something was different; Cleo seemed aloof and disinclined to talk and Tama was clearly shocked by something and barely uttered a word. They looked at each other so sharply; it was hard to read what was going on. Was this some of kind of standoff? Could be. So I hastily assumed the role of waitress and took their regular order over to them – two cups of Toraja coffee.
“Enjoy!” I said. Nothing. My attempt at conviviality did nothing to ease the tension; they hadn’t even noticed the aroma of the coffee. I opted to return to my counter and to watch them from a distance.
Tama took a deep breath, as if trying to understand Cleo’s cynical expression. Their eyes came to a conclusion that was comprehensible only to them. I suspected that their egos were eating away at them. So what was going on? Eventually I had to turn my attention to the order from table 8: four lattes and a black Arabica. That meant I would lose about 10 minutes of Tama and Cleo watching time.
Damn! Just as I thought, the critical moment had passed. I noticed Tama sitting there on his own. Where was Cleo? How had that scene ended? Maybe Cleo had slapped Tama’s cheek, like a scene from a soap opera, or maybe she’d rushed out in tears, like a segment from an Indian film. Eventually Tama called the waitress over, paid the bill and left. I thought he had an air of arrogance about him.
Time passed, and almost a month had gone by before Tama came back to the coffee shop, alone. It was strange to see him come in on his own, and it was even stranger when he didn’t go straight to table 9, but came over to the barista counter, to me.
“Have you seen my friend come in at all? She looks…. er, she’s in the photo…” he began saying.
“You mean Cleo?” I replied.
“So you know what she looks like; that’s great.”
“I even know your favourite coffee blend – Toraja.”
“Really? Thank you! I didn’t realise you’d been paying so much attention to us. Have you seen Cleo come in at all?”
“No, not in the last month.”
“If she comes in, could you give this to her?” Tama handed me a white envelope; I put it in my locker.
We divide time into its parts. Into days, weeks, months and years. I’m going to talk about the nature of time in this coffee shop, apart from something that contributes to the thing we label “coffee”. Why has coffee become such a precious thing? Isn’t it just a seed from a tree with aerial roots that grows in foothills or valleys? What makes it so hypnotic, so loved, such an object of philosophizing?
Away from the coffee story, I wanted to ask the same question of Cleo. Why had she not been in for a whole year? Didn’t she miss her Toraja coffee?
The envelope Tama had given me was still intact, although I was dying to know what it contained. I had safeguarded it for a year and my curiosity had only intensified. My fingers were itching to open it. There’s a difference, isn’t there, between curiosity and just needing to make sure of something? Oh Lord forgive me …
I am indebted to you, a debt that won’t be repaid by buying you a coffee or giving you one of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s books or engraving our names on a padlock and attaching it to the tower of eternal love in Tokyo and throwing the key into the sea. More than any of that, I owe you an apology after our argument, after you cut off all lines of communication between us.
Call me a coward, but that’s all I can do – allow our relationship to continue, without name and without shape But don’t you read it in my eyes every time I look at you? Because I’ve been looking at you that way for years. Do you understand why I gave you a bracelet and not a ring on your birthday? It’s because a bracelet sits closer to the veins and I wanted to be present at every one of your heartbeats.
Don’t imagine for a minute that I’m gazing at Andromeda or waiting for Pegasus to appear in the night sky, as if the morning will never grow old. I’m not saying goodbye because I’m preparing for death; I just wanted you to know that I’m going to England to study film. I’m obsessed with the idea of making our story into a film titled “Corner 9.” Laugh if you like …
Be sure to wait for me. Two years is not a long time when you know that I’m coming back. I’ll be there, in the coffee shop on your birthday, 30th May, in two years time. I will arrive boldly declaring “I love you, marry me…”
I re-folded it and kept looking uncertainly at the envelope. In a month I would be moving to another city. That meant that the letter would never be delivered; nobody knew Cleo like I did. So I decided to postpone my move; at least by waiting for Cleo to come or for Tama to come back I would expiate my sin of opening someone else’s letter. And I’d become part of their story, even though it was only as a messenger.
There were only two ways to wait for Cleo. The first was to act as if miracles don’t happen. The second was to convince myself that miracles do happen. I opted for the second. And how amazing it was when, after almost two years, she came in and solemnly sat down alone at table 9. It was the 23rd of May, one week before Tama’s ‘day of reckoning.’
Waiting. Was this what I was destined to do? I’d been waiting an hour and Rindra still hadn’t turned up. I decided to just go off to the bookshop on my own. Gloomily I browsed the shelves, until I chanced upon a book with a catchy title and a black cover featuring two cups of coffee. It had the same effect on me as an alluring mannequin. I smiled and decided to buy it.
Rindra arrived, out of breath. I tried to keep my calm even though I was really annoyed at having waited for him for nearly two hours.
“Sorry, Van, the bike had a flat tyre. What’s the book? Give me a look,” he said, as he grabbed it from me.
“You mean you’ve never read it? It’s the most romantic book I’ve ever read; it’s a true story about a married couple. It’s terrific!”
I stopped short as I read the words on the cover, letter by letter. It was called “Corner 9” and the author was Utama Abadi. I read the first page, slowly. Printed there were the words, dedicated to Savana, the barista who became a bridge for our love. The emotion must surely have shown on my face. Had that not been my mission three years ago, before I moved to this town? I realized now that a bridge was another metaphor for my role as a messenger who brought together two identities that had been separated. It made me happy to know that it had all paid off because God had meant them to be together.