She always walked in alone - twice a day, same times, same orders. Six AM - tall vanilla latte. Five PM - grande cappuccino. I had served her for over six weeks now, and I had memorized her.
I knew the timid-quick leap of her hand as she reset a wayward strand of hair neatly behind her round ear. I worried at the tiny red circles under her eyes every morning and the strained little sighs she uttered every evening as if even breathing made her sad. Her pale face flickered the barest of grins, tight-lipped and tiny, as she paid with exact change that she held ready in her right hand. She nodded and tipped exactly seventy-five cents - always three quarters, always pulled from her left pocket, always rolled in her warm hands like talismans before she tossed them into the cup.
She never sat down, never spoke to other customers, never lingered over a book, never worked on the laptop she always carried. She ordered, paid, tipped, and then three long sips. She took three long sips before she left the counter. Her small pink lips parted for those three sips, her hands shaking. She poured the coffee down her throat as if it was a cure for loneliness.
I loved her.
How? I don't know. I just did. Some people get weak-kneed and weepy the first time they hear a symphony or gaze at a Monet. She was my symphony, my painting. But I didn't know her name. One evening as I stretched to glimpse her scurrying out the door, I decided to find out. I was on a first name basis with most of the regulars, so it wouldn't seem odd for me to ask. It unnerved me to think I may actually speak to this fragile, caffeinated creature. But, at six AM, I was ready.
Tall vanilla latte I'm sorry, I must have forgotten your name. It wouldn't do to forget the name of one of my best customers. My heart slammed against my ribs like a claustrophobic in a phone booth, and I forced what I hoped was a casual air of nonchalance onto my face.
She spoke so faintly, it didn't sound like a word at all: Maya.
Maya. The sound somersaulted in my brain like that song you hear first thing in the morning and hum the rest of the day. I remembered that song my mom used to play from West Side Story, you know, the one where he hears her name and his whole life changes in an instant? Maria - that was the song. But Maya was so much better than Maria, so much better than any name I might have imagined for her. Maya - like an ancient chant that called on spirits from another world.
I loved her even more.
I mustered a response. Well, Maya Her name melted in my mouth like chocolate, sweet and dark and smooth. It's nice to finally meet you. Nice? Nice didn't begin to describe it, couldn't come near to the ecstasy that roared through my body, the blood that rushed to my face, my misfit lips struggling not to blurt out my devotion. I'll see you tonight - and I'll have your cappuccino waiting.
She stared at the floor. A whoosh of steam startled me as I stood at the counter, waiting for some sort of response. She handed over the cash with her right hand - exact change, as always - and my stomach dropped as she reached up with her left hand.
She lifted her eyes briefly. Nice to meet you, too, she murmured, and she slipped her tip into the jar. Silently.
No quarters in the jar - just a dollar bill. I watched as she lifted her cup to her lips - one, two, three four times - then started toward the door. I dug the wrinkled bill from the mouth of the jar and stuffed it, still warm from her hand, into the pocket next to my hammering heart.