It’s always bothered me when cliches are borne out. Like the old “if you quit looking for love, it’ll find you” cliche. And I honestly wasn’t looking for love or a relationship. Unlike many, I really was in school to learn. Relationships, I told myself, would do nothing but detract from that.
But the moment I laid eyes on Sharon, I was captivated. It was her eyes. There was something exotic about them. Something feral. This was oddly contradicted by her perfectly coiffed hair.
I thought she looked like she should be modeling Jordache jeans in a magazine ad, so yeah, she might have had that sort of “too perfect” appearance. But those eyes… They’re the windows to the soul, to go all cliche again. But that one, too, is more often true than not. Sharon’s eyes reminded me of a cat’s, playful but wild. Or maybe I just think that because, the first time I met her, she was wearing a leopard print blouse under her leather blazer.
She looked nothing like the typical customer in the store, which was nice. Most of the “health food” set back then were gaunt and looked as though they were made of tofu.
Sharon shopped there mainly for the coffee, which was one of my bulk food items. And, obsessive freak that I am, I’d been learning as much as I could about coffee since working there, which included sampling all the varieties we carried.
This was, after all, before there was a Starbucks on every other corner, and most grocery stores then carried nothing but cans of ground B-grade coffee. My father drank two pots of Maxwell House a day, black. I grew up hating even the smell of coffee. In fact, it wasn’t until I’d started working at this store that I began to do more than just tolerate the beverage. Our beans moved quickly, because they really were the freshest and best in town.
That first day, Sharon ordered a pound of Guatemala Hermosa. “Excellent choice,” I said as I began measuring out her order. She smiled, her eyes glinting, and the next thing I knew, I could barely breathe. “How would you like it ground?” I managed to say.
She shook her head. “I grind my own.”
“Me, too,” I said, and actually blushed, as though this were in some way intensely personal and too private to share with a stranger. I felt the flush in my cheeks and then became embarrassed that I was blushing, which only made my pale complexion redden further. Sharon noticed, of course. How could she not?
But instead of laughing at me, she extended her hand. “Sharon,” she said.
After a moment of shocked hesitation, I took her hand… that smooth, warm, soft hand… and tried not to blush even more. “Dinah,” I said, then winced. “Just… like it says on my badge.”
Now she laughed, but it was at the humor of the situation, not at me. Her laugh made me smile, and I knew I’d do almost anything to hear it again.
“Here you go,” I said, placing the bag on the counter in front of her. “Anything else?”
“Do you like Turkish?” she said simply.
“Oh, sure,” I said. “Especially the banana flavor.”
She laughed again. (Success!) “Not Turkish Taffy! Turkish coffee, silly.”
I smiled faintly, glad she got the joke. “Never had it. What’s it like?”
Her eyes, I swear, glowed when she said, “Black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.” As I absorbed that, she pulled a small notepad and pen from her purse and jotted something down. She tore it off and handed it to me. “You free around eight?” I nodded dumbly as I took the paper. “Great,” she said, picking up her coffee. “See you then.”
I watched as she glided up to the cashier and, eventually, I remembered to breathe again. I glanced at the slip of paper and my heart stuttered. It was an address. But not of a restaurant or cafe, I knew. For one thing, there weren’t any on Waupelani Drive. For another, the address included her apartment number.
What the paper didn’t include was her phone number. So when I had my anxious freak-out at around six-thirty, I didn’t even have an out. I couldn’t call her to cancel, but I wasn’t going to stand her up.
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, not knowing what to do with the mess that was me. Just out of the shower, my dirty blonde hair draped like soggy seaweed over my shoulders, not quite reaching my decidedly unimpressive B-cup breasts, which sat above my paunchy tummy.
I’d experienced the “Freshman Ten.” And the “Sophomore Twenty,” for that matter. Chalk that up to all those nights avoiding the home front by staying out eating fries and gravy at Perkins. I really didn’t want the “Junior Thirty,” but the newfound joy of pizza delivery definitely had me headed in that direction.
What a lump I was.
I tore my gaze from my midsection and focused on my hair as I blew it dry. Should I wear it up or down? Down, I decided. Mainly because the only way “up” that I ever really did my hair was in a high ponytail. And I looked about fourteen when I did that. Definitely not the impression I wanted to give, tonight.
Then came the wardrobe, such as it was. I stood there in front of my tiny closet and suddenly realized what was happening. I finally understood all those movies and TV shows where the girl was nervous about going out with a guy. I’d always found it totally weird, before. But here I was, butterflies breeding exponentially in my stomach, a sense of dread washing over me in the form of a cold sweat.
I couldn’t do this. I had to cancel. How dare she not give me her number? I didn’t even know her last name! What the hell was I doing?
Freaking out. Yeah.
After equivocating for twenty minutes, I settled on my one pair of designer jeans and a light blue sweater. A quick return to the mirror for judicious application of makeup (an art I rarely dabbled in, and it showed), and out the door I went.
I barely made the bus.
Sharon lived on the fifth floor of a complex called Imperial Towers. It was a plain brick structure, and the name didn’t fit at all. Then again, we’ve already determined that naming conventions in this area left much to be desired.
On the inside, however, the apartment was quite nice. It certainly made mine look like a hovel. As I walked down the hall toward her unit, I noted that each floor apparently had its own laundry room. My own building had one laundry room for the entirety of the occupants. Granted, it was a much smaller building, but I still found myself doing laundry at odd hours in order to increase the chance of finding open machines.
Finally, I stood in front of her door. The butterflies were out on maneuvers and I seriously thought about turning and walking away. Instead, I knocked. A moment later, Sharon opened the door, and the butterflies broke formation and went in all sorts of directions. She smiled, eyes shining. “Hey,” she said.
I tried to smile, but am not sure I succeeded. “Hi,” I croaked.
She invited me inside and I stepped through, into the kitchen. “I’m glad you came,” she said. “I was afraid you might stand me up.”
“No,” I said. “I…”
“You would have, if I’d given you my number.” She said this casually, as she led me through and into the living and dining area. My stomach knotted as she said it. How could she read me so easily? “Which is why I didn’t give it to you,” she said.
“Nice place,” I said, not wanting to talk about it.
“Thanks,” she said, and gave me a quick tour of the rest of the unit.
I saw the door to a second bedroom. I wanted her to say she lived alone, that the other room was an art studio or some other impractical thing that almost no student could afford.
“And that’s Jackie’s room. She’s on a date, tonight.”
Okay, a roommate. And she was on a date. At first, I automatically assumed it was a date with a boy. But then I questioned myself. What if she had a date with a girl? What if she had a thing for Sharon? What if Sharon had a thing for her? Did I have competition with a home court advantage?
Worse, what if Sharon was actually straight? What if she was merely being friendly, not flirty? Was I on the verge of making a total fool out of myself? My gaydar had never steered me wrong, before, but…
“So,” I said, hoping Sharon wouldn’t sense how nervous I was, “what about Jackie’s roommate?”
Sharon looked at me suspiciously, but with a smirk. “What about Jackie’s roommate?”
I cleared my throat and asked, “Is she on a date, too?”
She laughed again, and I felt giddy hearing it. “Sure looks that way,” she said. And I breathed a silent sigh of relief. I’d been afraid she’d be offended at the suggestion that she might (a) be into girls and (b) be attracted to me. She was just too… too perfect. But the gaydar was still working. I was just insecure.
Yes, that little voice was still there… the one saying I didn’t need this, didn’t want this, that it would take my attention away from my studies, and so on. I mentally told that voice to piss off. Because I did want this. The rest might be true, but oh, how I wanted it.
“So where do we go to get Turkish coffee?” I asked, as we returned to the kitchen.
“I make it myself,” she said as she pulled a strange little pot from her cupboard. It was made of copper, she told me, lined with tin. The outside was enameled, decorated with beautiful designs in bright colors. It had a long, wooden handle and was oddly shaped… fat on the bottom, tapering quickly at the neck. It looked like it would hold no more than a cup of liquid.
Next, she got out what looked like a big, brass peppermill. She opened it up and filled it with coffee beans, then added a couple cloves and a cardamom pod. She ground it all into a small bowl.
“Geez,” I said. “That’s a fine grind!” It was even finer than an espresso grind. It was more like coffee powder.
“It has to be,” she said. She scooped two ridiculously heaping teaspoons of the ground, spiced coffee into the pot, followed by two of sugar. From the fridge, she pulled a pitcher of chilled water and filled the pot carefully to about an inch below the lip. She stirred the contents with a fork, making sure there were no clumps of coffee, then put the pot on a stove burner on low.
And then we waited. And talked.
Before I knew it was even coming out of my mouth, I heard myself say, “Why me?” Sharon gave me an odd look, obviously not sure what I was asking. “I mean… you said… or implied… that we were on a date. And… I’m really… I don’t understand why me.”
She just smiled. “Why not you?”
“Because!” I blurted. “I’m so… so plain! And you’re so… so wow.”
I didn’t think I was being funny, but she laughed… that incredible, tinkling bell laugh, and it put me a bit more at ease. “You assume a lot, y’know.”
“Mm hm,” she nodded. “First, you assume that everyone finds you to be as plain as you think you are. Second, you assume that someone who is ‘wow’ won’t find someone ‘not wow’ to be attractive. And third, you assume that my attraction to you has anything at all to do with your wow factor.”
I blinked, a bit taken aback. “So… you’re a psych major.”
Again, the laugh, and this time, I smiled, too. “Education.” She continued watching the pot. “You have a problem with psych majors?”
“Just one. My brother.”
“Oh? Does he go here?”
“No,” I said. “He practices in Philadelphia.”
I glanced at the pot – she called it an ibrik – and saw the coffee had formed a thick mass atop the water. “Jackie’s a psych major,” she said.
I nodded, having nothing to say about that. We watched the motionless liquid in the pot for a bit. Then I said, “So… what is the attraction?”
Another quick glance, this one not mirthful, but serious. “Wow, you’ve got it bad, don’t you?”
It’s true that I didn’t think I was anything spectacular, but I’d never felt I had poor self-esteem. But I held back my automatic denial and replayed in my head what I’d been saying so far this evening and had to admit, it sure sounded as though I did. And then I began second-guessing myself.
“Ooh, here we go!” she said, and I looked to see the liquid in the pot begin to foam. It wasn’t boiling, exactly, but tiny bubbles of dark froth were growing up the neck of the pot, surfacing around the edges of the island of coffee. Then the island sank, the foam taking over. Sharon removed it from the burner just before it overflowed. “That’s it, baby,” she cooed to the coffee, then waited for about thirty seconds while the foam receded before returning it to the heat under her watchful eye. Without looking at me, she said, “You’re awfully quiet.”
“Just… watching what you’re doing.”
“And berating yourself.”
“No, I…” But I stopped. She was right, after all. “Yeah.”
“Don’t. Now come over here.”
I stepped to her side, prepared to assist with whatever arcane step was next in the coffee-making process. Standing next to her, I looked down into the pot. It was decidedly unappealing. The foamy substance was a reddish brown and looked like nothing so much as mud. It did, however, smell amazing. The cloves and cardamom mixed with the coffee aroma and I found my mouth watering at the thought of drinking this stuff, no matter what it looked like.
Just then, it began to rise a second time and Sharon again removed it from the heat, let it cool again, and returned it to the burner. She inhaled, a look of ecstasy on her face.
“How many times does it have to do that?”
“Depends who you ask,” she said. “The longer you can keep it at the foaming point, the more foam you have, and I love the foam, especially when it’s nice and thick.”
“Tricky process,” I said.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s so worth it. This is the foreplay leading up to the main event. You can’t rush it.”
Call me sheltered, but never in a million years would I have compared coffee to sex. But as I looked at her face, I could see she was quite serious about the analogy. I cleared my throat, trying also to clear my head of certain other images. “So, what did you need me to do?”
She grinned. “Nothing. I just wanted you closer to me.” And then she kissed me on the cheek.
I’d never blushed so much in one day in my entire life.
The coffee began foaming up a third time and now Sharon removed it from the heat and turned off the burner. “The grounds will settle out a little, now,” she said as she reached past me to retrieve two demitasse cups and saucers from the cupboard, decorated identically to the ibrik. “Take these to the table?”
I did so and she followed behind me, carrying the coffee and a trivet. She placed them on the table and we sat. She inserted a spoon into the pot, lifting out about half the foam. “This is the stuff,” she said, and deposited the aromatic mass into one of the cups. She placed the rest into the other, then began pouring the coffee itself.
It looked like hot tar. She must have seen the slight revulsion on my face. “Yeah, that’s how I reacted, the first time I saw it.” She finished pouring and put the pot back on the trivet. “Don’t drink the sludge on the bottom.”
“You’re not making this more appealing,” I said.
“Trust me,” she said.
I looked at the layer of foam atop my cup, so different looking from the crema of an espresso. Thicker, darker… and as Sharon said… sludgier. I lifted it to my lips.
What did it taste like?
Like you’d imagine sex should taste.