We all have a favorite fairy tale. We all have our own fantasies beyond the mundanity of our day to day lives. But should we rely on our dreams to help us get by? Or should we focus, instead, on the gifts we already have?
In “The Barista Prince”, I present this very question, and things get uncomfortable.
Not every hero slays dragons, navigates the bowels of never-ending labyrinths, or outwits the evil sorcerer to save their princess. Some change tires, serve tacos, or come to your one-bedroom apartment in the middle of the night to fix your Wi-Fi. The best kind brings pizza along.
My hero pours coffee and sometimes has a terrible dad-joke for me when I need it the most. Today’s, for example, elicits a barely perceptible chitter, but is appreciated nonetheless.
“Mornin’, Aurora.” Julian has a different name for me every day. Sometimes they’re Disney, sometimes I have to Google them after the fact. “Why do you suppose we source all our coffee locally?” he asks, a big, stupid grin on his beautiful face.
“I don’t know.” Because you’re a bunch of hipsters, I think, looking at all the metal in his face, the tattoo creeping up his neck, and the Birkenstocks on his perfectly pedicured feet. But who am I to judge? To each their own. Instead, I humor him. “Why’s that?”
“Because they’ve already bean around the world, and we like to stay grounded in local culture.”
Ha. Ha. Ha.
The venerable, or geriatric depending on who you ask, man in line behind me laughs so hard the caterpillar under his nose nearly falls off. He laughs himself into a coughing fit, holding onto the counter for support. He’s wheezing; his nose is making sounds like wind through willows.
I roll my eyes, adjust my backpack. “Can I just have my coffee, please?”
“As you wish, Aurora,” Julian says, adding a swirl of whipped cream to the top of my drink. When it settles, it looks like a rose petal.
A bit about myself:
I’m a junior at a small community college in an even smaller town; I might live in the only building taller than two stories, other than the lighthouse down by the bay, I and did not enjoy getting all my meager furniture up the stairs on my own. I’d tell you what I study, but I’m waiting to figure that one out myself. On top of going to school four days a week, I bartend at the only “hip” bar in town; the Four-Leaf Clover. It’s not a bad gig, once you get over being ogled by every single twenty-something in a fifty-mile radius on a nightly basis. Tips are good. Food is edible, if you pick off the crunchy bits around the edges.
I also have a four-year-old daughter, Ella.
So, as you can see, I’m living the fairy tale life I always dreamed of as a kid: a prince charming with a septic piercing to serve me passable coffee, a knightly court of drunken frat boy wannabes at my beck and call, and a sweet, sweet princess awaiting me at our castle. How could life possibly get anymore enchanted?
The funny thing about enchantments and magic is they tend to leave an impression, even if you’re like me and don’t believe in that sort of thing. They make the mundane extraordinary, the dull whimsical, and the ordered chaotic. When you notice it for the first time, magic that is, you change your tune as quickly as a bard running from a mob trying to beat him with his own lute. As a side note, that’s also an apt metaphor for some of the more testing trials of motherhood.
After fighting a two-day migraine, I finally make my way back to the coffee shop. Julian is there, like always. I don’t think he’s ever anywhere else. I think he breathes, eats, and sleeps coffee, and I’d hate to imagine what else he might be doing with it. As usual, all I want is that kick, that daily invigoration only possible through the reckless consumption of 100% arabica beans… locally sourced, of course.
“Mornin’, Jasmine. The usual?”
I nod, unable to process speech with the seven dwarfs swinging away at the interior walls of my brain. I’m not sure what they’re looking for, but they’re going to need more than pickaxes and terrifyingly harmonized whistling to find the gems I’ve got stored up there.
Something is off about Julian today. At first, I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s just my vision, still blurred from the headache, but I seriously doubt it.
I must be staring because he says, “Mirror, mirror, this is not the face you’re looking for. But, yes, I am the fairest of them all.”
“I, uh… huh? What?”
“It’s okay. I got it done yesterday. What do you think?”
Julian flutters his eyes at me. He puts his hands on his cheeks and strikes a pose, raising his eyebrows and tilting his head from side to side.
“Nah… I tried those, didn’t feel right. I wanted something that was forever.”
“Well,” I said, biting my lip, “I like them, I guess. They’re, uh, interesting.”
He hands me my coffee over the counter, this time the whipped cream is the shape of an apple with a single bite taken out of it.
“All the better to see you with, my dear.”
A shiver runs down my spine. I hate the sound of “dear” coming out of its mouth in relation to me. It’s poison to my ears.
Still, I sip my coffee, and everything brightens again.
“Julian,” I say, “you’re a wizard.”
“No, miss Jasmine. I’m just a barista.”
It’s Friday, so after class I have a late shift at the Clover. Mom, bless her heart, the woman is a real queen and always outdoes herself, watches Ella. She knows I worry. She also knows how hard it is to pay for rent and bills, buy groceries, put gas in the car, clothes on my princess and myself, shell out a small fortune for tuition, and pay a sitter on the weekends. Like I said, she’s a peach.
Finally, Saturday arrives and without too much of a fuss the night before. Some out of towner slapped my butt, the mayor’s do-no-wrong son threw up on the jukebox to the sounds of “Let it Go”. A) I’m not sure who put that one on the jukebox, and B) I think Phillip, after having far too many Jägerbombs, took the lyrics a bit too literally. Oh well, it made for an entertaining evening. To top it all off, I popped the Blue Ribbon tap right at the end of happy hour. I thought the drunkards were going to form their own mob and run me out of town with torches and pitchforks. They didn’t; they just moved on to the harder stuff.
It’s cold, so I wrap a scarf around Ella’s neck, help her put her fur-lined boots on, and grab a hoodie for myself. She’s ecstatic. As a mother, I live for days like these. As a student, a bartender, and a borderline psychotic, I dread days like these. Part of me wants to put her in front of an iPad and go back to sleep, but the zoo waits for no woman.
Ella tugs at my sleeves. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. Can we go see the goats?”
“Sure, baby,” I say.
We drive past no fewer than thirty farms on the way into the city. She could have seen barn animals at literally any of them, but I’m not too upset. The glint in her eye is enough to melt my heart.
She runs off ahead of me. I’m content to stuff my hands in my hoodie pocket and shuffle along behind her. The naivety of her gait, the way she stops to admire every little thing along the way—a bee over here, a wildflower over there—helps me get through the other stuff. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I really don’t.
“Trip, trap. Trip, trap,” she calls as she presses her precious face through the split-rail goat enclosure, imitating the way they flap their lips.
The rest of our outing gets better and better. Running with the wolves, cotton candy, and a train ride around Africa. I almost forget I have to go back to work soon. Almost, but every little bit helps.
This time I know something’s different. You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’ve done something—realized a mistake, missed out on a great opportunity, said something horrible to someone you care about that you wish you could take back—you know, it drops and feels so heavy, like you can’t possibly bear it anymore, and you feel like you’re going to be sick? Well, looking at Julian, I get that feeling.
“Mornin’, Isabella.” Look it up, you won’t be disappointed. Isabella, the “She-Wolf of France”, was one badass woman. “Care to try something new today?”
His nose and mouth are stretched out from his face. He looks like a golden retriever after it’s been stung on the snout by a wasp. The point of his nose is tinted a pale pink color, his eyes are massive, wide-open, and further apart than they have any right to be. He scrunches his nose-mouth like a bunny as he pours my coffee. There are craters in his skin where it’s stretched out around his piercings.
I’m speechless. Even if I knew what to say, I wouldn’t know how to say it. He just looks so creepy.
He winks and flares his nostrils. “All the better to wake up and smell the coffee with, am I right?”
I grab my coffee and hustle out, wishing there was somewhere else to get my morning fix. Beggars can’t be choosers in small towns, no matter how frightened they are.
The next day he has big, rounded, teddy bear ears. And, like clockwork, he says, “All the better to hear you with.”
The next, swollen cheeks. He talks like he’s got a thousand peas in his mouth.
This time, I don’t even bother to take my coffee. I throw all the cash I’m holding across the counter, squeal, and run away. Far away. I’m too tired to deal with this sort of thing. Instead, I stop at the corner store and pick up an acrid, lukewarm coffee swimming with bitter grounds and self-loathing.
Then and there, I decide I won’t go back. All the better if I could forget what I saw. There is no way Julian’s new modifications are real. There’s just no way… My fairy tale, it seems, is quickly turning into a nightmare.
Sunday night, one of my best nights for tips, as all the serious drunks come out to knock a few back before returning to the grind on Monday, I stay home with Ella to make up for how I’d been acting all week. Ever since the Incident I’ve been aloof, distant, short-tempered. Normally, I’m patient with her outbursts, her senseless child ramblings, and the funny little ways she explores her world. Earlier this morning, she did so by dumping all my jewelry down the toilet.
“I wanted the crocodiles to look just as pretty as you, Mommy,” she cried.
How can I stay mad after that? She really knows how to make you feel like a princess.
“Can you read me a story?”
I grab a few books from her meager shelf and she turns them all down, shaking her head and sticking out her tongue. When I pull out the Stinky Cheese Man, she covers her eyes and laughs until she snorts, but still wants nothing to do with it.
“Those are all we have, sweetness,” I say, yawning. “Should we skip our story tonight? It’s getting late.”
“No, no, no,” she says. “You tell me one, Mommy.”
I’ve never been particularly creative. I drew a snowman once that wasn’t half bad, but anyone can put three circles together, draw a triangle for the nose, and put buttons down its belly. No matter how many extras I gave my snowman, he never came alive. He just sat there, dead on the page, waiting for Christmas. Throw in three full-time jobs and constant, swelling anxiety, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for completely eradicating every last shred of creativity I ever had.
Still, I have to try. Ella deserves as much. Ella deserves the world; she deserves a kingdom of her own with unicorns, fairy godmothers, a pet dragon, and whatever else her heart desires. If she wants talking mushrooms, I’ll grow her talking mushrooms. I about give myself an aneurysm coming up with something, but then, with a ding, a story finds me.
“This,” I say, cuddling up next to her on her full-sized mattress. She picks at my face and runs her fingers through my hair, all the while sucking her other thumb. “This is the story of the prince who turned into a cat.”
Ella giggles, pulls my nose. “It’s the frog who turns into a prince, Mom. And we have that one! I want a new story.”
“Trust me, baby girl. This is a new story.”
In the dim light of our bedroom, I tell her the story, but I don’t tell her how new it really is. I have to stop shortly after I start to get up and grab the comforter off my bed. The window is open; the nighttime fall breeze is bitter to the bone. Ella is shivering and I have goosebumps.
She’s riveted, not looking away even once as I tell her the story. Of course, I embellish a few parts. The prince isn’t giving the princess coffee, he’s giving her an elixir to help her fly. He doesn’t have metal in his face, rather full plate armor, scorched in places from his fight with a dragon. He doesn’t walk on Birkenstocks; he rides into battle on a black and white-spotted steed.
“Mommy?” she asks. “Why does the prince keep going to see the evil alchemist?”
“He’s not happy, dear. No matter what he has in his life, he wants something else.”
Ella accepts this answer. I keep reading, her head resting on my shoulder, her breaths drawing longer and deeper.
Then, I realize I don’t know how the story ends. Endings are always the most difficult part. Sure, the prince wants to be a cat. He’s learned all the right spells, traveled to all the right foreign lands, but he hasn’t come full circle. He hasn’t finished his quest.
Luckily, Ella is fast asleep, gently snoring. I tuck her in tight, kiss her on her forehead, and shut the window. My allergies get bad if I sleep with the window open this time of year; sniffling and sneezing all morning is the last thing I need to start my week.
Outside, I hear a raspy meow, followed by the clatter of a can. I squint, but clouds move across the sky, temporarily blotting out the light reflecting off the moon. There’s a shadow of a creature sitting on the fence across the road. I get the feeling it’s watching me. As the clouds move on, I see what it for what it is.
There, perched on top of the picket fence, is a black-haired tabby, licking its paw. Upon closer inspection, I see it has metal stuck to its face, barely visible through messy tufts of matted fur. I half expect to see a family of slapstick, blind mice tiptoeing around it, but it’s alone.
But that’s not possible. It can’t be. I know I’m tired, but this is the real world. In the real world, men—princes or not—don’t become… no, I refuse to even finish that sentence. It can’t be said.
Instead, I shut the window, being sure to lock both clasps, and close the blinds. Out of mind, out of sight, right? I head to bed, stopping only to watch my Ella sleep—stealing a fleeting moment of bliss amid the craziness of my life. She’s precious there, tucked into her comforter like a burrito, softly breathing. Seeing her, I realize I don’t need fairy tales. I already have everything I’ve ever needed.
When I sleep, I won’t dream.
When I wake, there won’t be a “Prince Charming” waiting for me on the other side—not like I was looking for one, anyway—just a new barista, hopefully, and another week of work, work, work. But there certainly, positively, absotively will not be a pierced, tatted out cat behind the counter at the coffee shop. And it won’t look at me with a meow and say, “Mornin’ Anastasia. The usual?”