Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: a coffee shop in the hot sun.
When I was growing up my sister and I used to play a game. The game seeks to answer the fundamental question between us: whose father is worse?
For kids like us, separated by too many years and too many traumas with personalities like the bi-poles of a magnet we had to work hard to find anything in common. And even though we had a mismatch of fathers, those fathers at least shared the common trait of being awful.
I didn’t spend much time around my sister’s father, J when I was growing up. He lived in another part of the city, with a cast of his own rotating wives, and a different family all of them sharp and separate from me. J was a giant in my memories, a large refrigerator of a man who lent his shape and temper to my sister. I told myself that people change, and when presented with a possible opportunity I got so desperate that I believed that.
That’s how A (my boyfriend) and I end up in Wichita Falls, Texas stumbling through the two room airport in the dawn of a too early morning wondering if the single image I have of J will help me locate him. He’s waiting outside in his truck, a behemoth. Starring at its cool polished metal and its cold blue coat I already know I’ve made a mistake before his booming voice greets me. He calls me by my legal name. Isn’t that just icing on the cake.
In the forty minute drive from the airport to his apartment I realize that my entire life has just been one big mistake. Childhood memories are a scattershot of things you don’t have context for. J standing in your living room yelling. J telling your sister a lie. J laughing at your pain. Adult me though understands perfectly because it takes J only 20 minutes to say the n-word. Unprompted. We simply sit in silence while J dig himself inside a hole. J manages to be racist, antisemitic, ableist, homophobic, sexist, racist, and Islamaphobic for good measure just on the drive home. We sit quietly and uncomfortable at the mercy of this man.
You see desperation makes you do stupid things and this was a stupid thing. I didn’t know J and barely knew anything about him. J was married to my mother for a few years, J and my mother had my sister and then J left my mother. J is an army man. J is a macho man. J’s family is Italian. J is loud and has a bad temper and he’s more like my sister than anyone wants to admit. And he’s more like my sister than I want to admit. But J is being shipped to Japan and needs someone to take care of his business, a coffee shop, and I’m between jobs and desperate so maybe I could come down and take care of the business. And desperation, god, desperation makes you a goddamn idiot.
That’s how I end up in J’s overly air conditioned apartment while J hangs his hat on the rack and I realize that even if I had thrown myself out of the car or walked my way back to the airport I don’t have anywhere near enough money to get myself back home until my flight back two days from now.
I try to make the best of a bad situation.
When I try to ask J about the business and what he does each day for it, he tells me that I’m being rude. Despite that being the only meaningful reason we traveled halfway across the country to see him. Probably I should have been more suspicious when he wouldn’t discuss these matters on the phone but desperation made me blind. I switch gear and ask about the finances. He called me “a typical jew.” I don’t ask again. Instead I set myself outside in the too hot sun wanting to burn from the outside in.
It had been a hard year. The hardest and worst year of my life. And at that moment, I worry the year might just stretch out forever. That I’m destined to make all the wrong calls and get stuck up all the wrong trees.
My mother had made it all sound so reasonable “He’s family, he’s happy to do this but he hasn’t seen you since you were ten so you’ll go there and he’ll see what a brilliant woman you are and you’ll be able to live in his house and take care of his business and you’ll have something good to put on your resume when you get back to Seattle”
But he’s not my family. At the end of the day we go to a restaurant with the worst Tex-Mex food I have ever had in life. J drives us by McMansion houses and waxes poetic about their giant green grass lawns in the desert and how we “city folk” don’t understand the value of space. I stare at him for a long time. He was born in the same city as me. His New York accent is thick and hangs in his mouth like mine when I’m tired, like my mothers, like my fathers. The desert is beautiful but the green grass is an unholy terrain, a moat guarding unnatural and hideous white boxes made of plywood and lies sold to dumb city folk like J. Paper dreams for plastic people.
We go to Walmart.
We don’t have Walmart where I’m from so the experience is strange and J picks up palette after palette of cheap breakfast pastries, instant drink mixes, tubs of condiments, and loaves of bread for the morning. He carefully selects each of the cheapest items. He pays for them and loads them all up in the truck for the next day.
J wakes me up the next day 90 minutes before he said he would to “keep me on my toes.” He jokes that because the coffee shop is on the army base so we have to keep army hours but the shop doesn’t open until 8am and as I stare blearily outside the car window while he chats up a teller at the bank drive thru window. I wonder if his purpose in all this was just to torture me. I stopped talking an hour after arriving. After he directs slurs at me. Best just to survive this as quickly as possible.
We unload the pastries and other goods from the truck. He calls me a sissy, weak, lazy, and stupid while we do so when I can’t carry as much as him. I push it down.
I’ve never worked at a coffee shop but I’ve done my time in food service so I’m not expecting to be too bewildered. His shop however is three steel counter tops and two surly teens sitting between one single shot espresso machine and a POS machine straight out of 1985. It’s not a shop so much as an abstraction of a shop. An ungraded lemonade stand and suddenly the level of mistake I’ve made hits me. I’d already decided before visiting that I’d need to make $50k for any of this to worth it – a thing he assured me was easily doable but looking at his counters, looking at his Walmart pastries and his $60 espresso maker I already know this is a con.
He shows me how to make a latte once and then yells at me when I don’t correctly reproduce it. The teens snicker at me. I ask him how long we’re going to be at the store because I am now want to get through the hard talk of probably saying ‘no’ so we can spend the rest of our 36 hours decompressing. He laughs at me and calls me lazy again. 20 minutes later he opens the store and says he has to leave for a bit. I ask to go with him but he won’t take me and instead I end up spending eight hours on my feet at his coffee shop being yelled at by army cadets and two teenagers who see me as an obstacle.
I almost don’t blame them. Their lives, based on the gossip they loudly whisper to each other, sound positively dreadful and unlike me they don’t get to leave this hellhole any time soon. They work for J also. They attack me and they harass me all day but at the end of it, I’m not even sure that they have bad feelings towards me. They’ve just been attacked and harassed themselves and having someone to push around and make them feel big is a novelty not to be passed up.
It doesn’t stop me from going to the bathroom and crying.
When J finally picks me up I’m fuming but I decide to keep it to myself. For dinner, he leaves us alone in his apartment. We don’t have enough to order anything and the nearest anything is a gas station more than two miles away. We walk in the hot, muggy night air to the gas station and buy a few meager items. We sit in J’s kitchen and make breakfast for dinner and I realize it tastes better than anything in the past day because J isn’t there over our shoulder.
He comes home at 1am, tells me we gotta get an early start in the morning and I tell him either he shows me the finances and we discuss that or it’s done. He tells me he’ll talk to me in the morning.
We go back to the shop in the morning and I refuse to get out of the van not wanting to be stranded again. We go to the mall. We go to a Chinese take out. We go back to the house and he tells me that he won’t show me the books but his deal is that I pay him $620/mo to rent his apartment out of the $28,000 a year he will generously let me have for taking care of the store.
I don’t even have it in me to laugh. I tell him no. He calls me ridiculous. He calls me lazy. He says I wasted his time. I lie and tell him our flight is the first one out in the morning the next day and that I’ll take a cab if he doesn’t want to drive us.
That night J orders us pizza and we barely talk as we watch a violent television program. While a commercial blares in the background J tells me America is a great country. J tells me that most people don’t deserve to be treated well anyway.
I go to bed early.
We sit in the airport for seven hours waiting for our flight and I consider texting my sister to tell her about all the points she just won in the ‘whose dad is worse’ game.