Dumbstruck in Starbucks
In my screenwriting class last fall, our professor urged us to become aware of the life going on all around us. He insisted that if we only opened our eyes, life would give us more than enough ideas for our burgeoning scripts. I was reminded of that advice this morning as I sat in my local Starbucks, pouring over reading material in advance of writing my last of three final papers.
* * *
I first noticed her at the condiment table across the room. Young and very attractive, she was also rail thin, wearing skin-tight leotards that accentuated her waif’s profile. But it wasn’t her weight, or lack thereof that captured my attention. As she stood at the table, surveying the decanters of cream and reservoirs of sugar, stir sticks and napkins, she removed the lid of her venti drink, picked up a shaker of chocolate powder and began methodically tapping the bottom, sending a blizzard of brown over her frothed milk.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Done, she picked up another shaker, this one containing vanilla powder and with her index finger, continued the percussion.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Then the chocolate again, same number of taps as before.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Then the vanilla.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
It was a ritual that lasted nearly ten minutes. Back and forth. Again and again. Other patrons tried to work around her as she slowly and resolutely prepared her drink, apparently oblivious.
It was a good thing she was oblivious, because I couldn’t take my eyes off her. What was she doing? Wasn’t a couple of taps enough? Perhaps there was something wrong with the shakers? Clogged maybe. No, everything was too rehearsed, too deliberate; this was how she always did it.
Finally satisfied, she reattached the lid, grasped a notebook and pen with two fingers, and holding them as if they were a dead animal, went in search of a table. The only open one was across from me and she unhurriedly moved towards it. The table was one of those that double as a game board, segmented into grids of alternating colors for chess or checkers. She placed her drink down, seeming to take great care to position is exactly over a specific square. Then she looked down. Like the tabletop, the floor was a pattern of square linoleum panels. Unsatisfied with the orientation of the table, she circled it several times, and with as few fingers as possible, pulled it this way and that until it rested with exquisite geometry between a quadrant of squares. She did the same to her chair, taking several minutes to get it just right before easing into it with all the speed and effortlessness of an arthritic geriatric. Ever aware of the lines on the floor, she bent over to look at her feet, and brought them together with military stiffness. If she ever found herself even slightly misaligned, one foot would suddenly float free of the floor, hover for a few moments and when properly adjusted, come to rest again, the perfect mirror image of its twin.
Content, she took up one of her napkins and folded it in half. No, not folded, doubled it over as if she were preparing an origami crane out of Egyptian papyrus, making sure to squeeze the fold sharp. Everything she did was protracted and deliberate, as if underwater or in slow motion. She laid the napkin in her lap and repeated the action with another that she used to meticulously dab away any liquid that may have sloshed onto the lid while she walked. Throughout her stay, she would use the same napkin to wipe away the condensation that had collected on a glass of ice water, holding the napkin with two hands and running it down the cylinder from top to bottom with strokes that reminded me of house painting. A third, identically creased napkin was then placed on the tabletop and the coffee lowered onto it with the utmost exactitude, as if locating its exact geographic center.
Picking up a straw, she gently pressed it through the paper sheath and, crimping one end with her fingernails, pushed it into the tiny cavity in the lid of her hot coffee. Holding it like an explosive plunger, she gradually sunk it into the cup, reminding me of a James Bond movie in which our hero has to extract a plutonium rod or some such thing from a nuclear bomb without grazing the side for fear of detonating it. The straw cover was flattened and folded until tiny. When she finally took a sip, she lowered her head and grasped the extreme-most tip of the green straw with her lips, touching it as little as possible. Sucking, she watched, entranced, as the shadow of the liquid spiraled up the tube. After releasing it, she watched from directly above as gravity pulled it back down into the glass. She did it this way every. single. time.
Ready to work, she took her pen and wedged it into her hand like a surgical scalpel, taking care to arrange it just so between her finger and thumb. Opening a notebook, which was arranged to align perfectly with the outline on the table, she began writing — slowly, liturgically. I made an excuse to get up and walk past her just so I could look at what she was writing. I wasn’t interested in the content, just the artistry, which, as expected, was perfect and precise.
I was transfixed. Using my reading material as a shield to hide my gaze, I wrote furiously, recording her behavior in a manner that was part exploitative and part anthropological. I should have been glued to my homework, but instead, I was glued to her. That she is paralyzed by some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder is obvious. Thinking it may perhaps be a phobia of germs, I was proved wrong when not one but two nearby patrons asked to borrow her pen, which she gladly relinquished and retrieved again without so much as a second thought. She was thoroughly gracious when doing this, her face breaking into a radiant smile that remained long after the brief conversations had ended, like the explosion of a flashbulb on the retina on a dark night. Other than her maddening rituals, she was perfectly “normal.” When her phone rang and friends invited her to hang out with them in Central Park, she cheerfully agreed. But not before taking one of the bisected napkins and slowly…methodically…systematically… wiping down every exposed surface on her cell phone.