I heard myself order the pound of coffee from the tall, obese, cheery and red-faced man on the other side of the counter who dissolved into the petite blonde ponytailed girl of twenty years ago. As always, at this moment of the frequent transaction, I see the slightly crazed look in her eyes as I hear her voice say “You freeze, I break your knees.”
We were in a coffee shop in Providence, Rhode Island when I encountered her. She was helpful and spirited. The sort of young woman who decides to get into a thing with an enthusiasm that is perhaps more than would be deserved by her particular arena. She seemed to take pride in her aproned work as a seller of coffee. I am sure that in her mind, she self-identified as more than a clerk in a coffee shop. She was a coffee expert. A coffee advisor. A coffee authority. A purveyor of coffee excellence. So much more than today’s bitter barristas. Her voice was laced with “Trust me. I have information about coffee that will cause your gratitude.”
As she imparted her coffee laws about grind, brew, water, temperature and freshness, I noticed that she did not look at me. She seemed to be smiling with widened eyes at a far away place. Her words were a recitation of secrets for me, the privileged tourist. As she handed me the pound of espresso, she finally looked directly into my eyes and said “Remember. Nothing is worse for coffee than putting it in the freezer. I always say ‘You freeze, I break your knees.”
Later that night, her words came back to me. We were back home, and dropping keys and bags and hats on the kitchen table. I did not even dare to look at the freezer as I placed the coffee in the fridge. Even that, I feared, might be a venial sin adjacent to the mortal sin of the freezer. In bed, her warning was replayed on continuous loop between my ears, and her face rose up to the surface of the dark lake of sleep where it remained until morning.
She would be older now. Approaching middle age. Perhaps with grown children old enough to work in coffee shops. What becomes of intense young women who weave humor and violence into commerce? What kind of wife and mother did she become? Does crazed enthusiasm grow stale and weak in time, like coffee, or is it amplified in its progeny?
If I had put that coffee in the freezer twenty years ago, would she have sensed it? Would she have burst into our kitchen? Would I now be in a wheelchair?