I met Scipio at Mathilde’s yesterday. He was late and huffing–and amazing for a March day in Marblehead–was actually breaking a sweat.
He was carrying a load of blue books he said he hadn’t had time to grade over the spring break.
“You know,” I said with just a hint of disapproval, “It’s harder to do when there’s no time than when there’s a little time.”
He ignored me and looked toward the barrista. She was new: long blonde hair, a runner–you could tell from the way her underarmor outlined her legs–and took an instant dislike to Scipio as soon as she saw him. I guess some men would find her attractive. Scipio did.
“You’re too obvious,” I hissed. “It’s getting embarrassing to come here with you. I think the last waitress left because you wouldn’t stop staring–what was her name…”
“Maria,” he said without a pause.
“Maria, right. She’s working at the Salvation Army Store on Boylston because she thought you were stalking her.”
“These tables are really too small,” Scipio said. “There isn’t room for my bluebooks on the top.”
He tried to focus on me, but his eyes wandered toward the counter, and inevitably settled on the barrista’s bulging calves.
“I suppose you got all your marking done,” he said with a slight curl on his lips.
“Every bit. I don’t want to mix break and work.”
“You make no sense,” he said. “If you’re grading during break you’re working. So you’re mixing. Make up your mind.”
Scipio has always been good at trying to change the topic from his faults to mine.
“So, I guess having the work hanging over you during a vacation isn’t a little distracting, a little getting in the way of fun- time distracting. A little Oh gosh, what can I put off now that will cause me infinite pain in a week distracting. You make up your mind.”
The barrista had arrived. I ordered my usual.
“I just started,” she said, “excuse me if I don’t know what your usual is.”
“I’ll have a double espresso. My friend will have bubble tea.”
“Bubble tea?” she shot back. “Did you say bubble tea.”
“Exactly. Double espresso for me. My friend doesn’t believe in coffee after noon.”
She stood fast. She looked first at me and then at Scipio.
“You fucking don’t believe in coffee? That’s amazing. I don’t believe in God!” She had used the line before. She waited for a look of surprise–any reaction at all. None.
Scipio looked plaintively at me as though begging for instructions.
“I didn’t say I didn’t believe in coffee, strictly speaking” he said. “He did. I’d say I don’t believe in coffee after lunch”
“So you do believe in coffee?” Disappointment at not getting a gasp about the God comment had now turned into teasing.
Scipio was melting. She had him fixed in her blue eyes. I could almost feel his resolve leaking away.
“I mean, coffee is fine for morning but it’s almost three o’clock. So I prefer bubble tea. It isn’t that I don’t believe in it. In principle it’s fine” He coughed and laughed at the same time creating a thread of scum in the corner of his mouth. “It’s just not good for me.”
“Why is bubble tea good for three o clock.” She positioned herself near his elbow, her thigh against his stack of bluebooks that by now were in danger of spilling onto the floor.
Scipio frowned. “Look Miss,” he said, using a word I have avoided for almost ten years, “I didn’t ask you why you don’t believe in God or the tooth fairy. Please don’t inquire after my drinking habits.”
She moved away, feigning a pout, then pivoted and looked squarely at me.
“So you, you believe in coffee?”
“I do,” I said. “With all my heart. Why would anyone want bubble tea at three o’clock when there’s espresso on earth?” I tried to smile.
“Bubble tea’s more like the tooth fairy. I don’t believe in that either,” she said.
I was feeling a strange excitement at this development. Ten years coming to Mathilde’s, no one had shown the slightest interest in my usual. It didn’t matter what Scipio didn’t believe in after noon.
All that mattered is that I believed in something dark, concentrated, thick, bitter, and expensive. And it came with lemon peel and a tiny brown sugar cube to make it nicer.
“Can I have your number,” she said. She didn’t mean it of course. At least I don’t think she did.
But it was worth it just to see the expression on Scipio’s face.