Where coffee meets family.
Cynthia woke up at four in the morning to prepare. She had meticulously picked out four outfits the night before: casual, casually upscale, winter blasé, and winter chic. She needed something that said, I know we’ve only just met, but I want you in my life forever. At noon, Cynthia would be meeting Jonathan at Coolhaus, a place she picked, though now she found herself reconsidering her decision. What if he was lactose intolerant? Cynthia found “non-dairy” people to be insufferable. As a decade-long barista at Café Château, she could single out the non-dairies from the regular customers simply by the way they stood — shoulders tight, cheeks sucked thin, with elongated giraffe necks. The neck thing, she was sure, was a direct result of stretching their esophagus’s over the counter at the sound of “Sorry, we don’t have milk alternatives.” They would look at Cynthia as if she were hiding the non-dairy products behind the register. As if there weren’t a huge sign right in front of them reading: NO NON-DAIRY ALTERNATIVES. Oh god, what if Jonathan was a pompous non-dairy drinking asshole? she thought.
Jonathan considered meeting at the ice cream parlor to be a bit strange. To him, ice cream parlors were the epicenter of chaos and mayhem, where every person was vigorously determined to ruin his crisp-white linen pants — don’t even get him started on the seats and tabletops, gross. Chaos and mayhem were not new to Jonathan, who spent most of his life hopping from one cockroach-infested home to another. As an adult, he was a minimalist, the kind who found Marie Kondo’s “Keep it if it brings you joy,” ideology to be something akin to hoarding. Jonathan had exactly one of everything he needed, nothing more and nothing less — and all in white. His bedding, lighting, fixtures, cups, ceramic cutlery, dishware, shoes, socks, pajamas, …all white. If it weren’t for his mandatory therapy sessions, he’d be perfectly content with just himself as the only person in his life. But Dr. Illiza insisted he build a family. “In my experience, foster care is 50/50. It didn’t work out for you, but here’s the good news. As an adult, you get to build your own.”
“Build it from where?”
“I think you know where.”
So, he reached out to Cynthia, a stranger who he knew only through social media until they began texting. Like any new relationship, they carefully tiptoed around emotional topics, choosing instead to focus on something they had in common: a disdain for others.
At exactly noon, Cynthia sat outside Coolhaus, her legs crossed beneath the bench she sat on, her back straight and her fingers twitching nervously. When Jonathan reached out to her, she had no idea what to expect. His very name, Jonathan, felt strange on her tongue.
Jonathan was running late. Jonathan was always late, usually on purpose, this time out of habit. As a server in one of L.A.’s hottest mediocre restaurants, Lettuce, he watched an arrogant female CAA agent arrive twenty minutes late for a meeting with the CEO and leave with a promotion. After that, he decided to arrive twenty minutes late for everything.
Cynthia checked her watch, 12:15. She stood up slowly, hoping no one would notice her leave and began walking back to her car. She tried not to think about why he hadn’t shown up. Why the men in her life could never seem to show up.
As she was about to turn the corner, she received a text: Sorry I’m late, I’m here!
Cynthia spun around. Then stopped.
Standing in front of the store was a tall, handsome man, dressed head to toe in white, looking directly at her. He smiled, waved, and began moving toward her.
“Hi,” Jonathon said.
“Hi you,” Cynthia beamed. Jonathan looked positively angelic.
They stood there for a moment just looking at each other before Jonathan finally said, “It’s a bit early for ice cream, but I could really use a cup of coffee, do you mind if we go there instead?”
Cynthia watched Jonathan’s throat clench as his head twisted around as a double-scoop cone of chocolate ice cream, attached to the outstretched arm of a teetering child, moved past narrowly missing his pristine white pants. Jonathan was, without a doubt, a non-dairy.
“Sure, Bar Nine is just up the street.”
As they walked, Cynthia felt her hand gravitate toward touching him, hovering inches away from his. She pulled herself back.
Inside Bar Nine, Cynthia watched as Jonathan’s long neck craned to look beyond the line at the menu. At the register, she ordered a latte with whole milk and laughed as he ordered a black coffee with oat milk.
“What?” he said.
“Dairy isn’t going to make you fat. In my experience, men like a little meat on their women, I don’t see why gay men should be any different,” Cynthia said, trailing off into silence as Jonathan’s demeanor turned ice cold. With nowhere else to sit, they ended up sitting side by side on a set of metal bleachers. Grinding coffee filled the silence.
Jonathan despised the word ‘gay.’ All his life, that word had been connected to insults. Gay Johnny; Faggot Johnny; Fat Fuck Jo-Jo; the list went on. He tried to smile past his discomfort while practicing what he learned in therapy. Mentally he deleted the taunts like he’d practiced with Dr. Illiza, replacing them with epithets he hoped to one day believe, “Gay pride, Gay Love, Fabulously Gay…” But it was hard to erase what he felt at his core — that something inside him was broken.
They hadn’t discussed his sexuality; she assumed it was a given. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…oat milk is just so pretentious,” Cynthia finished lamely.
Jonathan laughed in spite of himself. Oat milk was pretentious. It was the latest dairy alternative to hit Los Angeles, and he’d bought into it hook, line, and sinker. “It’s also actually pretty high in calories.”
“And it doesn’t froth, which let’s be honest is the whole point of a latte,” Cynthia added.
Cynthia indulged in the moment of comfortable silence for a while. Then she said, “From the moment I saw you, I loved you, and I think you’re perfect.” Emboldened by her own words, she reached for his hand. He didn’t look at her, and that was okay. She just wanted him to feel her warmth, to know that she was there. “I’m sorry that we’ve only just met, twenty-two years and seventy-eight days too late, but I’m so proud of the person you’ve become. I’m astounded by the person before me, that I could have a son — ” Cynthia stopped, she hadn’t meant to use that word. “I don’t mean… you don’t have to…”
But he cut her off, “Mom…” he said, looking straight at her, “It’s okay, I’m — ” The word tumbled around in his head knocking against his defenses and then came out, in the same way, one might say boy or girl, “ — gay.” And suddenly, the hate gave way to love, and with just two simple words, Jonathan found what he didn’t know he needed — family.