Flat White

by Anne Rochell Konigsmark

for John Updike

In walks these three girls in nothing but spandex. I’m next in line and about to order a Venti mocha Frappuccino, extra whipped cream, so I don’t see them until they’re hip to hip with me, lined up like neon pens in front of the curved glass pastry case. The one that I notice is the one closest to me, her straight honey hair pulled into a thick, lustrous ponytail. My hand flutters up and fingers my hairband, which has to be twisted three or even four times to keep from slipping out of my thin strands. Her hair looks like a Ralph Lauren ad, but also like an actual horse’s tail. She has the body of a 16-year-old cheerleader, and she’s wearing a diamond big enough to keep the bubbles fresh in a bottle of champagne.

The guy behind the counter, a tall goober of a kid who should have found a real job by now, is staring at her like he just made her on his 3D printer. I suck in my stomach and stand a little taller.

“What can I get started for you girls?” I hear Goober say, and I realize he has skipped me. Invisible woman, that’s all you are after 40, my mom used to groan. But I’m 39, I argue back at her in my head. She looms up in my imagination, a much, much older version of me, someone old enough for a “barista” to overlook. I look to my left for help; surely the neon pens know it is not yet their turn.

That’s when I realize they are not “girls” at all, but women around my age. The one wearing the glacier is preoccupied, tapping something into her phone, her baby-ballet-shoe manicure hovering over the screen. I ball my gnawed nails into fists at my sides, and my knuckle just barely brushes against her cobalt Lululemon crops.

Next to her is the tallest of the three; she’s at least 5’10’’ and she hovers above the other two, her head like a periscope above their blond waters. Another glance reveals her to be in Olympic shape, her ripped torso shimmering in a Lulu muscle tank in Florid Flash. Everything about her is fierce: her high cheekbones, her aristocratic (if a tad shiny) forehead, which you can’t miss because her sable hair is pulled away from her face with a CrossFit headband. She opens her mouth just a little; her teeth are a startling white. This was perhaps a misstep. Teeth that big don’t need to glow in the dark. Still, an Amazon can get away with a horsy mouth. Her skin is the color of the lightest, creamiest caramel; her eyes glint like a predator after a clean kill. She wears a simple platinum band on her left ring finger. She’s watching the diamond as it moves over the iPhone like a meteor deciding whether to crash. Suddenly, they both throw their heads back, their pony tails swinging in tandem as they laugh in a way that can only be called vicious.

It’s the third one who pipes up and starts ordering. She is the Queen, her pre-teen rear end neatly outlined by what must be size zero flaming pink Lulu Hotty Hot shorts. Her legs are achingly, effortlessly, slender and tan. A sculpted slice of belly beckons from the top of the doll-sized shorts. But what’s most amazing are her breasts. They’re tits, really, each too big for anyone’s two hands, and nestled with precision into a light pink sports bra under a white tank top that she has knotted in the middle of her back. She looks like a porn star about to play a game of celebrity beach volleyball. Her hair is a tumble of bleached curls; she’s gone to the trouble of cat eyeliner and I think her lashes are fake; she wears diamonds by the yard, a tennis bracelet, and emerald-cut diamond studs that weigh on her earlobes. Curiously, no wedding ring.

The Queen leans in toward Periscope and places her palms on the curved glass, a hideous manicure spreading out like bloody daggers above the croissants and the muffins. I am actually rooting for her to lean in far enough that her boobs make contact with the glass.

“I’ll have a shaken Passion ice tea, but only shake it like, six times, and I also want a double red eye, scalding, in a Venti cup, and I’d like the tea to come out a few minutes before the red eye. Did I say double? I did, right?” Then she grins, ear to ear, a Miss Universe, crown on the head, whole world watching as I win this thing smile. I mean, it’s beyond gorgeous. Goober, eyes locked on the magnificent rack, tries to repeat back everything she has said: “Shaken Passion, okay, and what size was that? And I’m so sorry, a red eye, is that, like, one of those off-menu things, because we don’t normally do those.”

There’s a mirror behind Goober, and I can see in the reflection that the suburbs have been rocked to their foundation by the neon goddesses, and now by this outrageous, foreign order. A man selling life insurance has had to start over three times with his client, who sits with his back to the counter and has no idea what’s wrong with the salesman. “I’m sorry, how many kids did you say you have? And was that term or life you were looking for?” The salesman, in a tragic short sleeve dress shirt and brown leather shoes with chunky rubber soles, is saggy and eager at the same time, a combination that almost breaks me until I realize he probably lives in a nicer house than I do, and has probably taken his kids to Disney World eight times starting when the youngest one was in diapers and cried through the whole thing.

A much younger man, a student, perhaps, has lost all decorum and just closes his laptop and stares at the women, sizing them up like cuts of meat. He has given in so completely to his daydreams that he actually rubs his crotch under the table, as though reminding it to behave, or promising it he will take care of it later.

These women, they know exactly what they are doing.

Periscope orders next, as though all along the line was meant to begin as far away from the register as possible and then make its way backward.

“Double espresso, extra hot,” she says. She pronounces it ESS-PRESSO, not EX.

The diamond orders last: “Nonfat flat white, tall.”

The Queen adds: “Sorry, do you have any mint, for the tea? And a circle of lemon, maybe?”

“This isn’t the Piedmont Driving Club,” I hear from behind me. Close to the line, so close they are not reflected in the mirror and therefore have gone unnoticed by me, is a trio of cul-de-sac trolls. They are in tennis outfits, their gummy thighs splayed beneath thick white skirts, their arms sausaging out of tank tops. All three have on visors, which look simply awful and only serve to emphasize the misfortune of their practical blunt-cut hairdos and out-of-date bangs. Still, they sit in high castle judgment, their eyes traveling up and down the perfect terrain of Team Spandex. 

As if on cue, Queen, Periscope, and Diamond smile into Diamond’s phone and say in unison, “Girls Gone Wild OTP,” and collapse in a ripple of giggles. OTP stands for Outside the Perimeter in Atlanta lingo, meaning the suburbs. Clearly, these are city women.

I would know; I was one of them, once upon a time, before I told my husband I no longer wanted to work, and he said, fine, then we have to move out of the city. We left behind our charming, 1940s Garden Hills cottage and now live in a subdivision with streets named for everything they tore down to put the houses in. Oak Forest Lane. Cherokee Road. Farmhouse Circle. Our house has four bedrooms and feels like it’s made of cardboard. The county is only eleven miles from Atlanta, but no one who lives here goes into town much. Most days, I wander the rooms, checking Facebook for news of my old work friends, fussing with the family calendar, and trying to keep from eating too much.

I’m not unhappy, because you’re not allowed to be when you’ve had the privilege of choosing. Being dissatisfied fills me with shame, which leads to behaviors that create more shame, like wasting a whole morning in front of Morning Joe and The View. Or deciding to create elaborate dinners so I can cordon myself off in the kitchen, away from the children and alone with my All-Clad cookware and my Chardonnay. Some days, I’ll do anything to avoid a game of UNO.

I have a friend or two in the neighborhood, the kind of women you can take a walk with once a month, maybe twice, without overtaxing the relationship. My book club from the city ventures out when it’s my turn, which only happens once a year. I plan for weeks, forcing myself, my house, my very existence to smile broadly when I greet them at the door. I always serve something complicated; I’ll cure my own salmon, wrap a filet in pate and pastry (“It’s actually so easy!”), and finish the meal with basil-infused lemon sorbet. They fuss and say they miss me, but I know where I stand when they Instagram their lunches and Friday evening cocktails. I’m somewhere just beyond the frame.

When I was in high school, I had a set of friends like the Spandex Triplets, blonds with spray tans, thigh gaps, and boyfriends at a rival school down the road. I played the role of the “smart” one, like Sabrina from Charlie’s Angels. We called each other nicknames like “Loser” and “Ugly,” which secured our reputations as the exact opposite. But I also had a few down-market friends – quiet, studious types who were flattered by my attention. We talked about college and SAT scores; we ranked our favorite songs by the Cranberries and debated the existence of God, free will, and aliens. One girl was so grateful that she decided she had a crush on me. “I love love you!” she cried to me in a late-night phone call in eleventh grade.

I didn’t tell the blonds about this declaration, at least not right away. But all the same, they viewed my relationship with the nerds as a breach of contract. On the way to our cars one perfect May afternoon, I figured out they were heading to Sea Island as soon as school let out. “The guys are going too, so,” one said, leaving me to fill in the rest.

That’s when I told them about the nerd who loved me. I chummed the water with made-up details and manufactured disgust, and they crowded around me, performing a show of pantomimed vomiting, mock pity, and manic laughter. They created a nickname for the girl that she would never decipher, and they told me how sorry they were that I’d had to endure such humiliation.

Then they drove off in one car to get mani-pedis for Sea Island.

Things were never quite the same after that.

I’d come to Starbucks to treat myself. It would stand in for breakfast and lunch, and I had “paid” for it with a long walk (with a lot of hills) and a little abs and arms at home. It was nearly noon, and now I was starving. I don’t normally order a Frappuccino; I know it’s the equivalent of a cheeseburger. Even thinking about it makes me want the cheeseburger, too. Imagine how good that would be. I could just take that big cup with the plastic dome filled to the straw hole with whipped cream, get back in the car and head to the first drive-in window I see and order a cheeseburger and fries. Maybe get the combo and drink the Diet Coke with the cheeseburger and save the Frappuccino for dessert. Imagining such wickedness is like running through the motions of a bank holdup.

Now comes the part my husband thinks is pathetic. I don’t think it is, but he does.

I hear the cashier say, “What did you order?” I realize she is talking to me, and I know the system is about to gum up. “Ma’am?”

“Well that’s just it – she didn’t order!” one of the tennis trolls carps. Then I hear a rat-a-tat of indignation fire around their table. “Honestly, who do they think they are?” and “It’s not decent, at their age.”

But I don’t want their pity. So, I say, “Oh, I was just waiting to go last and then I’m paying for everyone. My treat this week, right ladies?”

They don’t hear me, not exactly. Or at least they pretend not to hear me. They’ve already paid with apps on their phones and the next thing we all know, they are walking out. Before the glass door closes, the Queen mock-whines to the others, “We ARE decent!” And then they are gone in a spun-sugar whirl of laughter. The sun on the surface of the parking lot makes it look like they are trailing diamonds in their wake. The Starbucks returns to its usual state as if it had flown around the county for a moment but is now back, safe and sound, on the side of a placeless parkway. The insurance transaction closes. The student reopens his laptop.

When I had my third child, a decision based largely on the existence of an empty fourth bedroom, my husband held him and said, grinning, “We’re outnumbered.” He was imagining the back seat of the car, dinners out, and breaking up fights in the basement.

“I was outnumbered with one,” I said, but when he looked perplexed, I smiled and shook my head to say, “Just kidding.”

It isn’t a question of love. My heart could never be outnumbered. It could have withstood three more children, and five more after that. It just seems like other women slip into motherhood like it’s a bathing suit that looks good in a three-way mirror. They like babies inside of them, on top of them, under their feet. They like how slow the babies make the days go. Any losses – the loss of guestrooms, careers, sex lives, the loss of control, the loss of time, the loss of self – they treat as disposable things easily Marie Kondo’d out of their lives. And they always seem to find a clutch of mothers just like them. I see them at playgrounds and by the pool, these groups of ladies that the universe has chosen to give perfectly compatible babies, then toddlers, who will grow up together under the collective eye of a Mommy Tribe.

The city girls are gone, and the suburbanites are studiously, communally avoiding me. I no longer think I earned the Frappuccino, but I order it anyway, because honestly, it’s what I deserve. As I drive towards McDonalds, all I can think is how hard life has been for me, all along. 

FIN

Anne Rochell Konigsmark is an award-winning journalist who spent 12 years in newspapers, beginning at The Anniston Star in Alabama in 1991. She went on to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Jose Mercury News; her reporting career culminated in New Orleans, where she was bureau chief for USA Today following Hurricane Katrina. Born in the South and raised in New York, she is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. She has been the recipient of multiple local and national journalism awards. Currently, she teaches English in Atlanta, Georgia, and she is seeking representation for a memoir set in Alabama, Atlanta and New Orleans.

“Flat White” was selected for our “Separation” theme about feeling disconnected. Read the rest of the stories related to this theme here. 

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