~~This essay was previously published as “Love, Loss and Another Day at Work” in Glamour Magazine (2003)
I wake at 5:25 in the morning. It's winter and New Haven is dark and crystalline. Not with snow--it's too cold for snow, but a showy hoarfrost coats the slick black pavement of Whitney Avenue, the shivering ivy and sneering granite gargoyles of Yale University, and the clear-paned window of the brick-faced coffeehouse I work at downtown. I rise slowly but shower and dress quickly, my feet bare against the tile floor of my basement apartment. By 6AM, I will have taken the five-minute drive, traffic lights still blinking yellow, parked my car against the curb outside the café and lurched my key inside the freezing lock. By eight o'clock, when my shift partner arrives and the business crowd--the lawyers, city planners and professors--stretch their yawning, expectant line from register to door, I will have been working for two full hours.
And I do mean full hours. By our seven o'clock opening, I will have dragged the filthy, heavy black industrial mats onto the floor. I will have turned on the espresso machine, filled the hopper with oily, pungent, dark beans and ground a bit of decaf espresso for the odd customer. I will have measured out and brewed only six ounces of "Flavor”--hazelnut or French vanilla (remembering that Mike-the-architect hates coconut-macadamia)--and six ounces of "Special"-Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or Kenya AA-because these are the least popular with my morning crowd, which wants a no-frills cup. I will have made umpteen trips down the stairs to the kitchen for crates of milk: two half gallons of whole, two of half-and-half, six each of one percent and skim, because the lower the milk fat, the higher the froth, and so, the prettier the cappuccino. I will have shouldered full trays of food up the stairs as well: banana-walnut and pumpkin bread; blueberry, lemon-poppy seed and cappuccino muffins; chocolate-chip, oatmeal-raisin and peanut butter cookies. I will have begun brewing sharp-strong Sumatra Mandheling and sturdy-mellow Colombian Mocha Java, our house blend. I will have accepted the day's delivery of bagels--still warm-in brown, hip-high paper sacks. I will have taken the chairs down from the mismatched dining room tabletops and arranged the chenille pillows on the couch, angling them over the accumulated stains. I will have stocked the service bar with napkins, "Java Jackets," wooden stirring sticks and to-go lids. I will have reached beneath the counter to choose a CD. Anything classical is allowed in the morning, and I likely will have chosen the bright, open pulse of Bach's Concerto No.1 in A Minor to rise like warm bakery steam above the first cappuccino order of the day. It's Emily's: double skinny decaf to go--what we call a "double why bother?"--with more milk than foam and steamed to 150 degrees.
"Good morning!" she says. ''What's your story today?"
My story, though I do not tell this to Emily, is that these mornings are tendons joining the muscles and bones of my days--propelling me through to the next and the next. I don't tell Emily that this job and the ridiculous specificity of her drink order, have, quite simply saved my life. I don't tell her that I am newly, unwillingly separated from my husband, that I cannot stop the reeling in my head--the what if? and what now?--or that I sometimes wake up, on mornings like this one, surprised to find that I am still breathing, that I have not actually died from the pain of loss, that instead I am anchored, continued and sustained by the esoteric motions of this mundane, hourly job.
Everyone at the café starts out on the night crew. It's the longest shift—6PM to one in the morning-- and the most insistently physical for the person working the espresso side, where you have to move constantly. You stand halfway between the register and the espresso machine, listening for the customer's order before the shift leader sings it out, ready to pivot left for bagels, right for lattes. You keep one eye on the dining room for stray dishes, one eye on the door for more customers. If you had a third eye, it would be trained to watch the service bar, the dish bin, the magazine table, the water level of the plants, the garbage in the cans, the dwindling milk supply in the upstairs fridge, the floor for spills, the counter for crumbs and the bathrooms downstairs for toilet paper. In the beginning, the shift leader's job seems easier by contrast: greet and chat with customers, fill mugs with simple brewed coffee, plop cookies and muffins on plates well within arm's length, work the register and shout out complicated strings of drink orders. You wouldn't know by glancing that the shift leader has his eye on the rest of it too--can do your job and his, all while dealing with customers. Which is a whole other kind of motion. But since everyone at the cafe starts out on the espresso side, everyone also starts in blind resentment of the shift leader's seemingly cushy job.
By the time I took my place at the steaming wand of the espresso machine, I too, resented Jason. Only I had cultivated one more reason to dislike him: he was a born-again, enthusiastically evangelical Christian. He sang out drink orders. He sang when he wanted me to wash down the tables, sweep, replenish the food supply. He drove me crazy with his singing because he meant to effuse praise and happiness. He had a zeal for life that, quite frankly, I could hardly imagine, let alone harmonize with.
I had taken the job at the cafe in the early fall partly because I needed the extra money for graduate school classes, and partly to distract myself from my crumbling marriage. My husband and I had gone to high school and college together, and the implicit romance of marrying your first love was not lost on either of us. We were braided into each other's families, had been there to see younger siblings endure braces and broken bones. On the day my father died, I sat, numb and alone, in the ICU waiting room while he, my, ambassador, did what I couldn't: stood bedside with the rest of my family, watched the nurse turn off the ventilator, and said goodbye. When the automatic doors swung open again, expelling my family--some hysterical, some stunned--he took my hands and told me my father was gone. And I melted into him, and the promise of a life beyond that moment.
Then, almost two years into the marriage, my husband began to morph into a man I'd never met. He carved away 50 pounds from his once expansive frame--that continental softness I loved to live in. He dyed his thick brown hair black, shaving it first into a harsh crew, then off altogether. He bought shiny black jackets and metal medallions to string from leather cords around his neck and stopped wearing the diamond wedding band we had chosen together, saying first that he didn't want to lose it at work, then that it didn't match his style. He went clubbing after work, first one, then two; then three nights a week. He worked as late as he could, as often as he could, and when he did come home it was after I had become disgusted and had finally gone to bed.
It was three months earlier, as we lay in bed, when he first told me how unhappy he was, how he wanted to leave his warehouse job, make a change. I loved him. I wanted to help. I gave him a bookmark--the inspirational kind with clouds and waterfalls and careful, scripted advice. It said "Wake up and begin." When I awoke after those nights of waiting, I'd find him sleeping on the brown shag rug of our living room while techno music pumped from the stereo speakers. He had passed out in the middle of doing push-ups.
The shift manager's wild exuberance for his Lord seemed to me as useless and manic as my husband's new cache of obsessions, and I hated having to take orders from Jason. At the end of my first night shift, he showed me how to swab the dining room with the industrial mop and press. He cranked his music--some "Jesus rocks" grunge band with low, scratchy vocals--and left me to do the grunt job. It was exhausting. I was covered in espresso grounds and sweat. My arms ached from carrying crates of milk up the stairs all night, and now my muscles felt as frayed and laden as the soapy mop head on the floor in front of me. It was after one in the morning and I knew I'd be driving home to an empty house, an empty bed. Since the start of my husband's metamorphosis, our intimate life had stalled. For every pound he lost, I felt like I gained three emotionally. We couldn't touch each other without feeling the weight of estrangement. Eventually we stopped touching at all. That night, I kept my back to the counter and cried, thinking, this is just too hard.
Unlike my home life, the job got easier. By mid-December I was enjoying the rhythms of the cafe and moving with them. I had learned to ignore Jason's melodic preaching or, at any rate, to smile and nod and distract him from it by producing his customer's double macchiato before he even called the order. And the owner, Iris, no longer allowed Jason's heavy guitar-driven rock music to be played during shift. So we spun Stevie Wonder and the Gipsy Kings instead and I swung my hips and head to the music while steaming the milk for my customer's latte. I turned to place the saucer on the counter and saw Joel, a regular, just standing there, staring at the air where my hips and ass had just been.
''What are you looking at?" I asked.
Customers always flirted with the espresso girls, and even though I didn't consider myself a particularly girly girl, I have to admit that it was fun to wear jeweled pins in my hair, trendy T-shirts and shimmery lip gloss. At home I felt ugly, clumsy and ignored, but at work I could be cute and quick and flirty. There, I could move to music that didn't remind me of the music at home--my husband's music--the bands he wouldn't share with me or the ones I had enjoyed until they became representative of his unraveling. I loved to pick through the CDs on the night shift and usually chose something new to me, something funky: Marvin Gaye or Bob Marley telling me everything would be all right. But the truth was that everything wasn't going to be all right--not for a while, anyway. In the meantime, at least I had started to like the way it felt to be in my body again.
That Christmas Eve, the tree stayed in the box in the basement because I couldn't bear the thought of hauling its fake weight up the stairs to the living room by myself. The next day, at my husband's parents' house, we opened presents from his cheery family. His cousin had given us a box of delicate paper-mache ornaments. I thanked her and retreated to the kitchen in tears. My husband followed, put his arms around me and said, "For next year." I thought those words constituted a commitment of sorts. I pressed my face to his chest and kept breathing.
One week later, back at the cafe, Iris asked me to help train the new girl, Kelly, on the espresso machine. I was scheduled to work until four, and by one the shift looked like it would run smoothly through. The counter line had lulled and Matt, the shift leader, decided to take a break, leaving me on register and Kelly on the machine. It was dead, so I decided to call home. I was feeling hopeful.
"Hey, I get off in a few hours," I said. "I was thinking we could go to a movie tonight. Want to?"
"No, I want you to come home. I've made some decisions."
What decisions? Calm down, you're at work, you can't ask him over the phone…
''What do you mean?" I asked. ''What kind of decisions are you talking about?"
"Just come home,” he said, “and we'll talk about it then."
This can't be happening, what about Christmas, he can't do this to you over the phone.
I looked down and saw that I had wrapped the phone cord around and around my index finger so tightly that the blood was gone from the tip, and was now entirely white.
I said, ''You're leaving me, aren't you?"
I made him answer me, then uncurled my finger and hung up. I sat on the bagel bin with my back to the counter. Kelly was stocking the service bar and Matt was still on break. I didn't hear the customer at the register until her annoyance with me peaked, and she finally blurted "Excuse me, miss!" I can only imagine what she saw when she turned to take her order: streaky black cheeks, throbbing red eyes, stupid pink hairpins.
"Oh. Sorry. Can I just have a lemon bar to go?"
I wanted to slap that woman. I wanted to take every single lemon bar curdling on the sickly yellow plate and wing them, all together, at her head. I wanted to lock myself in the office and scream my head off, but Matt was still off on his break and Kelly had already scalded another pitcher of skim and had confused chai for chocolate milk in a customer's drink. I wanted to know what was going to happen when I got home, what would happen when I asked him not to leave, when we drove to Danbury to tell his parents over their maple wood dining table. What would happen after we packed our house into separate, labeled boxes and moved out. What would happen after I stood, sweaty in brown silk in a cold Meriden, Connecticut, courtroom, in front of the judge. I wanted to know if I would still get to have children and go to graduate school.
I wanted to know how I was going to get through this shift, but at that moment I didn't know anything except what I knew from the clock: we were about to have a rush. I checked the brew baskets behind me to make sure that they were full and ready to go. I opened the fridge and counted the gallons of milk. I unloaded a rack of dishes. I sent Kelly to re-wipe the tables while I re-layered the lemon bars. I got ready for my customers; I got ready to work through.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
I wrote “Shift” in a memoir workshop during my MFA degree at Penn State with the formidable and persuasive writer and teacher, Vivian Gornick. Prior to this class in 2001 or 2002, I had never written creative prose of any kind. I was a poet and a poet only.
Sometime during the next year, a dear friend of mine who had been in the class with me, saw the call for Glamour Magazine’s first-ever creative nonfiction contest, “The Story of Your Life.” She ripped the glossy page out and handed it to me, saying, “You should submit that essay to this contest.” I thought she was nuts. I knew that Glamour would be deluged by entries by very talented writers. But as there was no entry fee and since my friend is, herself, formidable and persuasive, I stuck the thing into a mailer and sent it off to the Conde Nast building. Then, I promptly forgot about it.
And it stayed forgotten until my cell phone rang in August of 2003. The voice on the other end informed me that my essay had been chosen out of more than 6,000 entries by judges Nora Ephron and Beverly Donofrio as the first place winner of the contest. I think I dropped the phone.
The prize was also formidable: photo shoot at my home in State College, PA, complete with gorgeous chandelier earrings; trip to NYC; lodging in a swanky boutique hotel; haircut and style at swanky salon; real cash symbolized by those HUGE Publisher’s Clearinghouse-style checks presented to me at a luncheon fete, at which I also learned, uncomfortably, that Maybelline cosmetics had co-sponsored the contest, and so gifted me with a year’s supply of makeup, most of which I gifted to friends and family. The glass case now houses my craft materials.
And, of course, publication in an international magazine (that people actually read) and a conversation with a NYC literary agent.
When I tell the story of this essay, I often linger on the superficial details: the photo shoot, the makeover, the makeup. I get laughs like this. Or I talk about how profoundly weird it felt to have my essay re-titled without my say, and to see it appear next to an Aqua Fresh ad, inside a magazine featuring Heather Graham in a fringe skirt on the cover. I often talk about how, as a feminist, I felt deeply conflicted about being suddenly part of what I saw as the problematic world of women’s fashion magazines. How sheepish I felt about it then.
And if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I still struggle with some of this. But I don’t think struggling is a bad thing. It gives me a chance to examine my discomfort and mine it for meaning, which is exactly what my old teacher, Vivian Gornick, would have instructed me to do.
But on the other hand, that publication changed my writing life for the absolute better. With it, I reached an audience far larger than I ever had as a poet, and that audience sought me out to thank me for my words. From the agent conversation, I learned that I did indeed have a book-length something in me, and now that something has been written and is seeking publication. With that publication and every day since, I have seen myself as both poet and memoirist. The “Shift” of the title refers to something personal, something that cracked me open painfully and made me into something new. But it turns out to be an apt metaphor for my writing life as well.
ABOUT SHEILA SQUILLANTE
Sheila Squillante is a poet & essayist, and associate editor in charge of the blog at PANK. Recent work has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Barrelhouse, Thrush Poetry Journal, JMWW and elsewhere. She is the author of three chapbooks of poetry and a full-length collection due out with Tiny Hardcore Press in 2014. She directs the low-residency MFA program at Chatham University, where she also serves as Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth River literary journal.