There are certain sorts of information, not secrets, but often secrets, which you must share early in a relationship. And by early, I mean before you have sex. Or, as soon as possible after the first occurrence of sex if it happens unexpectedly. I’m guessing here because I have only had unexpected sex once, and that was a case of mistaken identity.
Examples of the kinds of things you should share early in a relationship are: Jack Nicholson is your father. You are missing your big toe. You’ve been to prison for a violent crime. You’re a mime. And, of course, if you are over the age of 25 and a virgin. I’m not judging, I’m just saying there are basic human protocols and this is one of them. Under no circumstances should you confess to being a virgin if you are not a virgin, except to your parents, and even then, 30 is the generally accepted cut off for lying to your parents about your virginity, or no longer telling the truth, as the case may be.
Examples of the kinds of things you do not need to share early in a relationship are: You have never operated a lawn mower. You are missing your small toe. The fact that you suffer from leukophobia (fear of the color white). Your mother’s maiden name. The fact that you own cats, unless it is more than two cats.
These things are obvious. The trouble comes, the trouble I am having at the moment as I look into Mary’s eyes on our second date, with all the things in the middle. In my estimation, my much considered estimation, which should not be confused with a bet, Mary and I have a better than 50 percent chance of sleeping together tonight. But I have a secret. Thirty minutes ago, I would have considered it a minor secret not worthy of a pre-sex confession, but if I move my eyes away from Mary’s eyes, to a point just over her left shoulder, I can see in the distance, across the parking lot from the restaurant where we have just ordered, the distinctive green sign of the One Dollar Store, where there rests on the shelves an object of deep obsession for me.
I am a coffee masochist.
There is an art to shopping at the One Dollar Store and it depends largely on why you are shopping there. The reason most people shop at the One Dollar Store is cash flow. Nobody pretends that anything they buy there is anything other than crap. But if you only have ten dollars until payday and you need a light bulb or batteries or deodorant or those sticky things that hold your nostrils open so you don’t snore, in bed with Mary, for example, the One Dollar Store is a sad rescue but a rescue nonetheless.
Even when cash flow is not an issue, there are things you might consider buying at the One Dollar Store (where everything is a dollar, if you didn’t know), such as gift bags, birthdays cards for your children’s classmates, Sharpies, and balloons.
One thing you should not, under any circumstances, consider purchasing at the One Dollars Store, even though you can find a reasonable facsimile on the shelf, is coffee.
Unless you’re Batman. Sorry, wrong confession. I mean, unless you’re a coffee masochist. Yes, like me.
So many gas stations, so little time.
I met Mary nearly two weeks ago at my neighborhood car wash. Her Smart Car was just ahead of my Kia, so I was feeling guilty from the start. I was staring at a wall of useless car interior accessories when she asked me if I found the scent of green apple annoying.
I was not asking a real question. This was a question designed to draw attention away from the fact that I had been covertly observing her since I stepped into the air conditioning. The logic of the observer states that pretending not to hear the observed when they unexpectedly speak to you makes it clear that you also did not see them until they interrupted your meditation on sun visor extensions, dashboard compasses, and tire pressure gauges.
Mary smiled at me, I nearly passed out, and she repeated her question.
“I like the idea of having my car smell better than it might,” she said, “but all of these air fresheners seem wrong. Cinnamon is supposed to be an accent, a component, a hint, not the main attraction. Who wants to smell cinnamon alone, all the time? The only half-way decent and modest scent here seems to be green apple. What do you think?”
“Green apple is beautiful,” I said.
So it began. She knew I was talking about her smile and I knew she knew and yet we both pretended we were talking about air fresheners in that charming way that almost nobody ever really does outside of the movies. So when it happens in real life, you try and make it linger.
I examined the rack of air fresheners and spotted my opportunity to keep talking.
“You know, coffee is a generally welcomed scent, even by people who don’t drink coffee.”
“Oh I love coffee,” said Mary.
I was, so soon, at the crossroads. Had she just invited me to ask her out for coffee, or was I a big stupid idiot who should consider the possibility that she was simply a person trying to connect in a casual way with another nearby person who happened to be a man?
“I’m not,” I said, and then added, “if you,” and then I stammered for a bit, and I may even have looked at the ceiling before concluding, “yes, coffee is great.”
“Have you ever been to the Zeitgeist coffeehouse?” asked Mary. “It’s not far from here, it’s my favorite coffeehouse.”
Finally, under the weight of the moment and her smile and the fact that the guys who had been drying our cars were now waving their arms in the air to signal that we could tip them and leave, I ventured.
“Well, we should have coffee then,” I said, “and discuss air fresheners in depth.”
It was like farting. I could not even enjoy the fact that I did not stutter and that I had said something coherent and even vaguely articulate. I only felt the release of executing my part of the dance.
“Okay, yeah” she said. “My name is Mary.” She held out her hand.
“I’m Hank,” I said, taking her hand and resisting my boyhood compulsion to add, “as in Aaron, the home run king.”
We exchanged numbers and after a sorting of schedules over the next few days agreed to meet nearly a week after the car wash, on a Sunday, at the coffeehouse, which was actually, as it turned out, named The Psychgeist. This gave her plenty of time to check out my digital bits and pieces online and make sure I wasn’t a lawyer or an English major.
The coffee was good and the company was great. While I am vaguely aware that there are in the world women who find my indirectness and introversion appealing on some level, it is always stunning to witness it in action. Mary was patient and engaging, but never allowed me to use shyness as an excuse. She needled me and even made fun of my careful responses. Although I knew with certainty that she was simply being herself, it felt, unreasonable as I knew it was, that she had been practicing to meet me, though not me specifically.
When she asked if I wanted a second cup of coffee I was emboldened.
“Yes,” I said, “but I think it is time we took this to the next level and had actual food, like dinner, sometime, maybe.”
“I would love that,” she said, and I was sure I was dreaming.
She gathered our coffee mugs and stood.
“Which coffee do you want?” she asked.
Such a question. I fought the panic and glanced casually toward the baristas and the menu, though I had memorized the selection when I first arrived. I had in my mind a significant amount of information about the Ethiopian coffee they were brewing at and all of it was wholly irrelevant at that moment.
“I’ll try the Ethiopia,” I said.
Mary nodded and walked off to the counter. It wasn’t until she was at the counter that I realized she would have to pay for the coffee. The urge to trot over with my credit card and observe more than assert that, “I’ll get this” was annoying but not overpowering, so I kept my seat.
Our coffee date lasted two hours and could have lasted longer but you really need to do your laundry at some point. We did the arm brush a few times on the way to her car, that thing you do, partly to test the electricity when it’s not yet time to hold hands, and partly because you’re simply off balance. Friday, we agreed, we would go to dinner.
The One Dollar Store contains seven aisles: The gift/wedding/party aisle. The crafts/fake flowers/candles aisle. The tools/cleaning supplies/pet supplies aisle. The health/beauty/socks aisle. The kitchen utensils/Styrofoam/plastics aisle. The candy/canned goods/potato chip aisle. The toys/office supplies/beverage aisle. The back wall contains paper goods and storage solutions. In the front of the store you can find seasonal and holiday supplies, sunglasses, and balloons.
You will find coffee, if they have coffee, with either the beverages or the canned goods. I find it endlessly fascinating that instant coffee is usually located on the beverage aisle, while ground coffee can be found on the food aisle. Meeting the person who made that merchandising decision is on my bucket list.
It was after my coffee date with Mary that I found a new coffee in the shelf at the One Dollar Store. The bag was on the canned food aisle, so it was ground coffee that would require brewing. I can use instant coffee, but the experience is not nearly as satisfying because, well, apples and oranges. It was seven ounces loosely packed in a bag with no valve and it was from a country whose coffee I had not previously tasted. I practically squealed.
I don’t have many rules but I am strict with the rules I do have.
The coffee must be bad, of course, but also beyond bad, stale, uncared for, cynically neglected not because the people who are responsible for bringing it to market don’t know any better, but because they do know better. I usually have to imagine most of that. It must be my first cup of the day. It must be brewed properly. I must finish the entire cup (at least 12 ounces). And finally, my second cup of coffee, the cup of coffee that immediately follows the unspeakably awful coffee, must be exquisite.
If you have never tried this, you have no understanding of the pleasure, the gratitude, and the intoxication. Clearly, it is addicting.
Mary doesn’t cut her salad with a knife, which means she is not self-conscious about funneling the leaves past her lips or the momentary traces of dressing that remain until her napkin takes them away. She orders a Pinot Grigio and then a Cabernet with her mushroom ravioli, a Cabernet she asks me to choose, not because she believes my choice is any better than hers, I can tell, but because she guesses at the agony I will endure while choosing. She teases me the entire time and then…
“Sometimes I envy people who can live so much life in their heads,” she says.
I tell her it is exhausting and she tells me she knows and I tell her I am a coffee masochist.
Mary laughs and says, “I don’t think you’re using that word right, Hank.”
“What word?” I ask. “Coffee?” But I am actually thinking about how she has just said my name in front of me for the first time and how it fits so well with her voice and her bright mischievous eyes.
“What do you mean by coffee masochist?” she asks, and there is nothing behind her question except the question.
I tell Mary all about the bad coffees, the coffees that are a sin against humankind and nature and I tell her the rules. I tell her about how the good coffees are like people jumping out of planes with parachutes to fly around rescuing people without parachutes. I tell her about how appreciation does not need to be manufactured, but sometimes it needs to be harkened. I tell her about how contrast is a part of composition and who among us is not trying to compose a life out of the random remnants we find in the world on any given day.
Mary listens and Mary smiles and Mary nods in that way that people nod when you are speaking their words before they do.
Mary asks for the check.
We are walking to my car and this time we are holding hands and I am pretending to wonder what will happen.
“I am not always who I am right now,” I say, and just as I start to wonder if she understands, she tells me she does.
“I have broken bits and shadows,” she says. “But not right now, not right now I don’t.”
Just as I decide that this is probably a love story, Mary removes all doubt as she steers me away from my car and toward the One Dollar Store, with is bright green sign dismissing the fading light.
“What?” I ask, and this time I am really asking.
Mary lets go of my hand and walks ahead so she can hold the door to the One Dollar Store open for me.
“Let’s get some coffee for the morning,” she says.