By Chris Fryer
Harsh love, she called it. An older sister I never had treating me like the younger brother she never met. I’d never known the sweet taste of air until Sandra drowned me in her miserable affection.
“You’re late,” she said.
I tied the apron around my waist. “Admit it,” I said. “You were just worried you were going to miss my face all day.”
“If I missed your face I’d just look at a piece of gum stuck under one of the tables and get about the same feeling.”
“You’re so poetic at seven thirty in the morning.” I grinned.
She finished steaming milk for a cappuccino. I poured myself a cup of black. The morning sun lit up the lazy haze of dust in such a way it looked like cinnamon was floating over the heads of customers yawning and shuffling their newspapers. Sandra finished and delivered the drink while I leaned against the counter and took my first sip of coffee. She returned with an armful of dirty dishes.
“Wash these,” she said.
I could tell something heavy was on her mind, but didn’t push.
It was far too early for someone like me to be cleaning dried egg yolk and pieces of quiche off the plates of strangers. Not that I didn’t enjoy aspects of the job, but a guy’s got to know when he’s in the wrong place doing the wrong things. I didn’t go to college to learn to let the granola bowls soak before trying to scrub them clean.
But I knew that now.
Out front, a small line of sweaty yoga folks had formed and were chatting about their diets and asking Sandra if we had almond milk. I stepped up to the register to thwart their attention and she resumed position behind the espresso machine, and while I charmed tip money out of the yogis, she poured roses in their lattes.
When the line dwindled, she said, “Always expect an avalanche.”
“But more than that. Murphy’s thing was knock-on-wood stuff, like how when you say you hope something doesn’t happen, it probably will. I hope it doesn’t rain. Bam. It’s raining.” She meticulously cleaned the steam wands and brew heads. “I mean, don’t hope something won’t happen. Just plan that it will.”
“Okay,” I replied, sipping my coffee. “Why do you say this?”
“We’re getting fired.”
We’d joked about this before. Sandra was the best thing to ever happen to this company. She was the Steve Jobs of Brew Club. But here I saw the frown she only reserved for real talk, and I swallowed my laughter.
“Even worse,” she said, “they’re closing this store. They can’t afford it.”
“Can’t they transfer us to a different one?”
“There’s no room to budge.”
A customer came up to ask about the wi-fi code, pulling me away from the conversation. When I turned around, Sandra had already sped off to collect dirty dishes from abandoned tables, taking long strides through the swirling cinnamon mist. I finished my first cup of coffee and poured another.
“So we’re all gone?” I asked upon her return.
She snapped her fingers. “Avalanche,” she said.
“You’re saying I should’ve planned for this?”
She straightened the teapots. She straightened the rows of pastries. The best thing Sandra did for this company was straighten things out.
“Yes and no,” she said. “You’re fresh out of college. They don’t teach you to plan for when everything falls apart. They’re supposed to fill your mind with helium and make you think you can float over all of life’s problems. I’m not saying it’s bad to have a little helium, but it’s unrealistic. Life isn’t a musical.”
I asked, “Well what’re you gonna do?”
“I learned my lesson a while ago. I’ve always made sure that I had enough money saved up to spend three months without a job and survive. I’ll go stay at my mom’s old cabin. I’ll paint. I’ll rest. I’ll find a new path.”
“Sounds like you’ve done it before.”
She waved goodbye to a customer, then said, “Nothing lasts forever. No job, no relationship, no plans, nothing. Any time you feel comfortable doing something, get ready for change. The biggest change always comes when the waters are calmest.”
I shrugged. “That’s depressing.”
“A lot of people see change like this and it freaks them out. Worse, still, they feel inadequate somehow, like they did something wrong, made some wrong choice. I refuse to believe that. Our choices often have so little to do with us. We’re constantly just grabbing at straws, hoping they’re good ones. But all straws have a start and an end, no matter if they’re good or not.”
“It’s sad, though. Leaving this place,” I said. I’d been working behind the bar for about nine months. Tips were good. Hours, not terrible. People were nice. “I guess it won’t be too hard to get another coffee shop job.”
Sandra shook her head and said, “Get out of coffee while you still can.”
“And do what?”
“What’d you go to school for?”
“To get into therapy, I guess. My mom was a therapist.”
She nodded. “Now’s your chance. I mean, we all take the first easy job we can when we’re out of school and facing our first real world rent check. I did the same thing. But I always knew it wouldn’t last. And I also knew I didn’t want to keep repeating myself. Easy job, easy job, easy job.”
She stopped to make a mocha for a tall quiet man in a suit.
“So between jobs, I would go to the cabin and I would reassess my goals. After the yogurt shop, I became interested in business management. Then I managed a gardening store in Mill Valley. Got into landscape design. Then interior design. I kept following the path without repeating myself.”
I asked, “How’d you end up here?”
“The owners hired me to design this place. I fell in love with it. Low and behold, I became the manager.” She didn’t sound sentimental or bitter or anything. Sandra was a woman of hard truth and reality. I liked that. “But I took the job knowing it wasn’t forever. Since day one, I’ve been ready for what’s next. I could tell immediately that these people were awful at managing their money.” She paused a moment and smirked. “Maybe I could be a financial consultant.”
Our shifts ended a few hours later. Sandra went home to be with her cats and I wandered back to my studio to contemplate future employment. Two weeks later the café was closed. New owners picked it up and they offered me a position but I declined. It didn’t feel right. I wanted to make the most of the advice I’d received from Sandra, which is why I steered toward occupational therapy.
On a napkin one afternoon at the bar, I penned a few potential names for my future therapy business, something that said Don’t go for the easy job, don’t settle, don’t repeat yourself, something that was truthful and a bit painful, and after a dozen ideas I finally put a circle around my favorite: Harsh Love.
About the Author
Chris Fryer was born to tell stories. Amidst figuring out what to do with the rest of his life, he’s been submitting short stories, working on a novel, and actively building the blog Thousand Thoughts. On a path toward a teaching career, he looks forward to teaching English and creative writing in the future.
This column was originally published on Niche’s website on October 15th, 2013.