There are many men who come into the coffee house on a daily basis. The lonely soldiers with a keen eye for the pretty potential wives. The businessmen who orders cappuccinos because it sounds professional, meanwhile not knowing what they’re ordering. There’s the teenage boys seeking dope in the form of 2,000 calorie drinks, running their parents credit cards without a second thought. There are many men of every height (or lack thereof), width, density, and sophistication.
Then there’s Steve and Joe.
The ancient duo: alanky cancer survivor and his stout sidekick waltz into the shop nearly every day to tell the starry, blue-eyed boy at the register that he looks like Buddy Holly. They flirt with the ladies, begging to take us on lavish weekend trips to Vegas. We all scoff at the offer, some even twist their wedding rings to prove they wouldn’t tolerate such comments from anyone else. I guess every lady is a “lady of the night” when the lights come down, even if we try to hide it. We don’t need Vegas for that.
Steve and Joe order the same drinks at the same time in the same Colorado weather that changes like God is PMSing and dictates precipitation by how mean he’s feeling at the current hour. The weather itself is not the same, but rather how terribly inconsistent it is. That never changes.
Today, Steve came in alone and ordered his “hot, HOT chocolate — so hot it’s gonna burn my face off hot chocolate” and cringed when I asked him where his handicapped partner was (but don’t get it messed up, they’re not “funny” together after hours).
“Off with the girlfriend,” he replied dismally, looking out the window in a playfully dramatic manner. There wasn’t a word that fell from his lips that wasn’t wrapped in humor with a smile tied around it like a bow. He could joke all he wanted to with me, but Steve had been through hell and back a few times. I reckon they’ve got a street named after him and everything. The wrinkles near his eyes aren’t just from aging. Even a fool could notice that.
Joe had apparently fallen for his caretaker at his assisted living home down the block. A tall, blonde lady with a tacky name like Vickie. An overrated broad in the eyes of Steve, an absolute gem to Joe.
“I was watchin’ them sneak in the side door,” Steve tells, running his hands nervously through his synthetic hair. “Well, you see, those relationships aren’t allowed there. They have to sneak around.”
The whole situation reeked eerily of the hormonal cesspools I had become far too familiar with: high school. The sneaking around with a younger girl. The forgotten best friend watching from a car with envy. All of it was too perfect.
See, high school is said to be a miserable (sometimes glorious for the carbon-copied) four year expanse of time. Some films will show it to be a coming of age film with camera flares and Arcade Fire playing in dark cars with smuggled alcohol. Some show it as the dark sides to that one jock or the cheerleader. None show it as it actually is. The truth is, the pettiness, unspoken social rules, unattainable standards, and clique rivalry has talons on your life forever. Life is forever a petty, unfair, and cruel affair. High school is just a scapegoat we use to cover up our awkward phases of childhood. Long live the mean girls, the car breakdowns, the awkward pimples, and the relationships that are drawn on far too long.
Steve was distressed by the whole situation. I could tell by the way he couldn’t stand still and kept watching the door, hoping that Joe would come stumbling in with his cane dropping every few feet. We both knew he wasn’t coming, but hope is an awfully pretty lens to put on clouded eyes.
“I haven’t seen ya in a week. Why’d you ditch me?” He said, peering over the counter to make sure I was boiling the milk properly. He’s always skeptical until my hand can’t touch the pitcher any longer.
I told him I was touring colleges on the west coast and liked the weather and coffee, just not what I was actually there for. I confessed that I’d probably have to stay in state or go to a junior college for a bit before I could move on because my health was so bad. It felt embarrassing. I had been an advanced student in nearly every class since they day I entered school. Sure I have some natural ability, but most of it is the amount of work I put into everything I do. I’m not a genius. I’m not going to cure cancer. I just know what I want and how I want it. Work will get me that every single time.
I knew the question that was coming next. I always know it. I can see it in people’s eyes when I drop easter eggs of information about my illness or make quiet jokes about not being able to see properly.
“What’s wrong with your health? You’re upright and smiling,” he asked. He still teetered back and forth on his white New Balance sneakers that stood out against his baggy grey sweatpants. He gave up the prospect of his friend joining him and focused all of his attention on me.
I explained my “diagnosis” and gave him my Sparknotes synopsis of the past three years of my life. I’m working on being honest with people and not sugar coating what I go through, because sugar just gives me more headaches. I am quickly reminded why I hate telling people though, because his face contorts and I feel like I’ve added another line to his wrinkled forehead.
“I’m seventeen now and have been on twenty or so medications,” I reply slowly, almost as if for the millionth time of me reciting it, I had finally tasted the words.
Instead of feeding me the typical response of pity with a spoonful of “have you tried ______?”, Steve’s lips fell to a singular, conjoined line. I also knew what was coming next. He had mentioned her in passing a handful of times before, and I knew that the sparkle in his eye only comes around at the mention of her.
“Those doctors don’t know anything. Same thing happened to my wife. They told her ‘take this’, ‘take that’. Stuck needles in her arm all day and nothing helped. She took all those pills till she died. Now I hate ‘em all. Every single one of those doctors. I hate ‘em,” he muttered, shifting his red cap back and forth.
For the first time in my life, I felt like someone got it. I felt a rush of relief and sadness hit my core and explode outwards. I don’t want to cry because I’m sure he’s got a ‘pity-detector’ of his own, so I just watched him.
I always feel guilty when I snap at my doctors or refuse medication. Then I remember that they are just educated idiots. No matter what diplomas we stick to our rear ends and no matter how high we hold our noses, we are all chickens with our heads cut off in the yard. Moreso, my body and ailments are just as much of a business as the coffee shop I work at. My doctors are nice men, but they have mouths to feed as well. It’s in their best interest to give me their “best shot!” that conveniently comes packaged in those horrid orange containers. I’m wary of the whole process. I just don’t buy it anymore.
I told him that I hated them too.
We stayed for a moment, just looking at each other. Everything was falling into place around us and the particles in the air were still, like each one of them was listening to our heartbeats and silent conversation. He was still for the first time. No fidgeting or cap turning. I wanted to ask him a hundred questions about life and his story with illness. I couldn’t imagine the guilt of surviving something without your partner, just as much as he couldn’t imagine my pain. Pain is isolating and unique, derived like an unsolvable math equation, just for us. But all math is its own, secret language made up my magicians and understood by only the trickiest of us. Pain is the thread that unites us as the ‘Hefty bags of blood with too big of brains’ that we are.
It wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t spiritual. It just hurt in a very relieving way. The way we all need to hurt sometimes in order to take some of the weight off of living.
He smiled softly and grabbed his “hot, HOT chocolate — so hot it’s gonna burn my face off hot chocolate” and walked towards the door, asking when I was working next. He called me by my name and winked before letting the greeting bell hit the glass door and walking to his car.
Steve reminds me why I choose to work during my teenage years when I could easily mooch off my parents like most of my peers do. His kindness and humor prevail against all odds. He is living proof that the human spirit is a resilient one. A beautiful one. A strong one. His heart is made of oak and whittled into a flute whose music we all wait every day to hear. I just hope his wife, wherever she is, never lost her hearing.
Steve’s the kind of guy that makes me want to get up every day and prove my doctors wrong. I’ll use my extra pills as bullets to this damned world that pushes me down every day. If not for myself, then I’ve got to do it for Steve.