I’m at an interview in Eastbourne, Wellington, saying: I moved here a few months ago and I’m taking some time off uni. I don’t say: I haven’t been able to sleep for months and I can barely understand people when they speak to me. I’m being asked if I have experience making coffee. I say, ‘Yes, of course.’ I have experience drinking it. That has to count for something.
I leave the interview hoping I’ll never hear from them again. That weekend they offer me the job. I slide my laptop across the floor, roll onto my stomach, and type, “barista tutorials” into YouTube.
Make sure the tamp is flat. Press down from the elbow, not from the wrist. 80 kilograms of pressure. Tap the tamp against the rim of the portafilter. Tamp again lightly and spin it over the pressed coffee. Lock the portafilter into the machine. Five seconds before the crema starts dripping out. 25 seconds before the stream goes blonde. Shut the water off. The steam should fizz lightly over the milk before plunging down into a whirlpool. Bang the jug on the counter. Spin the jug. The milk should shine.
Two years earlier, I had gone back to the Gold Coast during the Christmas holidays and got a job waitressing in corporate boxes at the Ashes. I watched the cricketers stretching, bending their bodies over, pulling legs back, arms across, getting ready for a hard day of standing there. The groups of businessmen I waited on talked about cheating on their wives. I leaned on the counter, waiting for them to look over and nod their head for another beer. I quit before the test was over and got a job painting glass Christmas decorations. The main artist asked what kind of coffee I drink. She said, ‘I’ll get you a flat white. You’ll love it.’ This was when I realised that coffee could spin through your limbs, make your heart beat faster, make you more excited about piping glitterey whirls onto ornaments.
After the first week of work, I heard my name while I was walking back to the car, covered in glitter. I hadn’t seen Mark since high school. In year eight I’d wondered if he would send a rose to my classroom on Valentine’s Day. In year nine I’d cried in the bathroom because he went on a date with a girl he had met on MSN.
I said, ‘It’s been a long time.’
At first, I count the seconds until the crema starts. I time 25 seconds on my phone. I try to make milky hearts in the foam, but I drag it wrong. They all turn into penises and I have to spin them away with a skewer before the customer sees. Before long, the timings and technicalities become a sense. I can tell when I’ve over-tamped or under-ground. The things I have to concentrate on reduce, narrowing to the orders in front of me, printed out and stuck to the tape on the coffee machine. Natalie pulls a spare exercise book out of her bag and gives it to me. She says, ‘Let’s write novels and eat ice cream when there are no customers.’
We’d been talking for months; me in Sydney, Mark in the Gold Coast. I lacked the conviction I’d felt in high school. I flew up for the weekend, just to see. Mark texted to say he was getting petrol and would be there in ten. He wrote, ‘I’m nervous. Are you nervous?’ I sent back, ‘It’s only me,’ but my hand trembled when I lifted my coffee and quakes rippled across the surface.
After six months, he moved to Sydney. His step-father was walking towards us to say goodbye. I thought he was about to hug me and lifted my arms towards him. I realised too late he was aiming for Mark. Because they were both a step above me, my head got stuck between their stomachs, my hands sitting limply on his step-father’s waist, tapping lightly, pat pat. That’s when I realised how easily I could let go of Mark. I’d do it just to avoid seeing his step-father again.
In a year’s time he makes his idea of a coffee: three spoonfuls of Moccona in a full glass of milk. I tell him I want to move to New Zealand. He asks me to marry him instead. I say no and he cries with his mouth open, hands gripped around the glass. I help him pack his car and drive with him back to the Gold Coast. People will tell me what a nice guy he is, that I might not find anyone like him, but it’s hard to be clung to so tightly, to be loved that much.
Mochas are a gateway drink. The soccer parents order these on Saturday mornings. The first customers are always the local shopkeepers: the artist from next door and her dog with his little jumper; Martin from the pop-up shop who stands at the counter and talks to me about books; the pharmacist who orders long blacks and sticks her head around the machine to make sure I’m pouring the shot over the water and not the other way around. Week days are for the locals, they don’t bother coming out on weekends. On Wednesday mornings a group of older ladies do the crossword together.
Geoff bought the café from our old boss a few weeks ago. He takes the coffees to the tables because he thinks he’s charming and he wants to build rapport. The groups shuffle the coffees to the right people when Geoff turns around.
On summer weekends the queue stretches down the street. They want flat whites and gelato.
At a cafe in New Zealand I ordered an affogato. The waiter looked at me strangely. He said, ‘Okaaay,’ and brought me an avocado. Topher and I laughed and I thought how we’d have this funny first date story to tell people. I got a long black instead and worried about my breath, but he didn’t try to kiss me. He never did. On the second date he tripped in the street. His hands were in his pockets and he couldn’t catch himself. Later, I tried to stalk him on Facebook and accidentally made his name my status update. My phone wouldn’t let me delete it. I had to call my sister and tell her to run to a computer and log in to my account. On the third date he had a fever and I became too anxious, afraid of the silences. We had covered ourselves in too much shame.
I try teaching Geoff to make coffee. When he stretches the milk it turns into big foamy bubbles. He presses from the wrist and the tamped coffee leans to one side in the portafilter. He leaves the hot water running too long and the stream of coffee runs until it looks like dishwater. The pharmacist goes to another café when she sees him behind the machine. He’s too slow for the soccer parents who say: I really have to get to the field, and: how long will it be? Geoff sulks when his wife tells him to get off the machine and take orders. He hates the crossword ladies and moves the chairs to the back on Wednesdays so they don’t all have somewhere to sit. I tell him I’ve been sleeping better and I’m going back to uni. He barely speaks to me for the last two weeks and isn’t there on my last day. When I visit Eastbourne, I go to the rival café.
I put on my fluffy green jumper, which I hardly wore because people ran their hands over my arms and said, ‘Fluffyyy’. But maybe Seb would touch my arm. I wouldn’t have minded if he did it. We met at a café in an art gallery and he shuffled around more than usual and talked too fast. He kept spinning his phone between his fingers and dropping it. When the coffees arrived I saw he ordered his in a takeaway cup. After a few minutes he said, ‘Oh well, I won’t keep you. Don’t want to make you late for work.’ I told him I don’t start work for three hours, and we only just got our coffees. Mine, unlike his, could not be taken away. It was a relief to leave the café. I got into my car thinking, ‘What was that?’
Later that day, Mark messages me. He wants me to be the first to hear, before I see anything on Facebook. He likes someone. He’s thinking of asking her out. He might. Yes, he thinks he will. I tell him he should go for it, but it’s been three years and he can like people without letting me know. He says, ‘Thanks for being so good about this. I know it must be hard for you to hear.’ I tell him Seb and I are pretty much in love, then I go and make myself a Moccona.
Alie Benge is a Wellington-based writer. Her essays have been published in Takahē, Mimicry, Turbine, and others. She was joint winner of the 2017 Landfall Essay Competition. Read more of her work here.