352. A Little Love For Your Coffee

Alice draws a little heart shape in every cup she brews. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first thing in the morning, before the sun even rises; or in the dead of the night, as people amble by as they would watch TV: inattentive, detached, bored. In the center of every mug, atop a pool of golden-brown coffee, she draws a little heart shape in cream, frothy and light.

Everyone just needs a little love sometimes, she reasons.

She learned how to make it on her own, through a step-by-step tutorial she found on the internet, and then through trial and error. God knows there were many trials and errors.

She will always remember the day she made the perfect heart shape: a week and two days after she found the tutorial on the internet. On the surface of her morning coffee, she traces delicate lines with a toothpick, making a little groove from the top of the milk circle, then pulling the lower edge out so that it grew a tail. In the spur of the moment, Alice puts a little dot at the end of the heart, like a full stop. She admires her handiwork.

And then she takes a picture of it for Instagram.

One day a man walks into the shop. It is near closing time: the chairs are stacked upside-down on the tables and the floors are newly mopped. The lights are dimmed and a pop-rock track plays in the background. The last of the cups are being washed. The trash is being taken out. Then the man walks in, shoving the door aside violently. He sits in the corner, by the window, takes out a cigarette and begins to smoke.

No one quite knows what to do.

The man was big enough and looked don’t-mess-with-me enough that they leave him alone. Cleaning up tobacco ash was a 5-minute inconvenience. A black eye, or broken bones, would be an inconvenience lasting significantly longer than 5 minutes. But by 1am, the man is still there, and everyone is anxious to go home.

Alice knows just what to do. She goes into the back, whips up a fresh batch of coffee; and while it steams away on the countertop, she pours the milk in and draws a little heart shape on the surface. Nervously, she steps towards the man with the cup balanced on a ceramic saucer. She lays it down. The spoon makes a little tinkling sound against the ceramic as the saucer touches the table.

The man looks at the cup, and then up at Alice. He says, “You made this?”

“Yes sir,” she says. “It’s on the house.”

The man offers a smile that turns sour. “It’s shit,” he says, and flips the cup off the table. It shatters into a messy puddle of wasted coffee and ceramic shards. Without a word, he walks past her and out the store, into the night. Alice continues standing there, looking at the mess for a long time.

Her coworkers help her clean up, and despite her insistence that she is okay and has no need for anyone to worry for her, she cries inconsolably into the night, only finding the solace of sleep an hour before dawn breaks over the city. She wakes up that day two hours late for her first lecture and misses the second one because the bus would not wait for her.

At 5pm she goes into the shop. She offers a smile to anyone who asks her if she is okay. She stashes her bag in the back, changes into uniform, puts an apron on. When she emerges a minute later, there is a cup of coffee waiting to be delivered to a glum-faced fellow sitting alone near the magazines.

She picks up the milk jug and draws a little heart shape in the middle of the coffee. The fellow seems pleasantly surprised by it. She offers a smile for him, and he returns one.

Everyone just needs a little love sometimes.

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