Working as a barista at one of the local boba joints near my college was always interesting. Constantly surrounded by people my own age, listening to conversations of excited new students, observing long study sessions, giving “the usual” to frequent customers.
Though being behind the counter meant giving up my identity for one as the “boba girl,” being viewed as not an individual person with an actual personality and personal life but a girl that serves honey milk tea with boba and small pastries when one is in dire need of a study break, I realized that it wasn’t so bad. I was greeted by both familiar and fresh faces every single day and small talk came easy. The tip jar was never empty. Maybe not quite full, but I guess I was doing my job right.
There was a frequent customer named Alicen. What triggered my initial interest in her character was her aura—she just seemed like an interesting person. The way she talked, the way she dressed, the small singular dimple that formed when she smiled just to the left of her lips. How she smelled like vanilla. She was just the right amount of bubbly with an edge of sarcasm. Friendly. She ordered the same thing every time she came in. Taro milk tea with mini boba and one white chocolate macadamia cookie. Whenever I recognized her figure materializing in the store doorway accompanied by the light jingle of the bell above the door, I began her order immediately.
I wouldn’t say we became “friends,” really. We were just familiar with each other enough to make small talk about school and other things while I was taking her order, though I knew exactly what she came in for.
We formed an invisible relationship. Customer and barista girl taking her order. She always had a funny short story to share whenever she came in, usually with a friend or two whose names I could never really remember.
As the months passed, she came in less and less despite the frequent return of her friends. School, she said. It’s getting really difficult the closer I get to graduating. Understandable. She never seemed to be a fan of public studying, or studying at all, at that.
A few weeks passed before I noticed that she had stopped returning altogether, and that I hadn’t seen her friends in a while, either. For a moment, I regretted not ever exchanging contact information. Maybe if we did, we could’ve had some “bestie” type of relationship that all the other girls seemed to be fond of. Life went on and I continued to do my job, as always.
One day, after taking the order of a grumpy old man dragging a bored looking seven year old by the hand, I recognized the face of one of Alicen’s friends. She smiled at me as she walked up to the counter.
“Long time no see!” I greeted her. “What can I get for you today?”
After punching in a few numbers and handing her a receipt with some change, we made a little small talk since there were no customers walking in after her. How was school, how do you think you did on your midterms, how was life in general.
The last question seemed to pinch her a little bit. “It’s… okay.”
I played the part of a partially concerned stranger without overstepping boundaries between barista girl and any too-personal questions reserved for long time friends.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that Alicen hasn’t been here lately,” she commented softly.
“Oh, you’re right. I haven’t seen her in a long time. Last time I spoke with her, school was really tough, wasn’t it? How is she doing?”
“This is so surreal, discussing it in a place like this after such a short time.” Her eyes seemed to bore right through me, like her focal point was somewhere in the array of coffeemakers and the tall menu behind me. “She passed away about three weeks ago… got into a car accident on her way home from the dorms to visit her sister. Drunk driver.” The grimace that pinched her face reanimated the pain of a freshly opened wound. Her eyes glossed over.
I gave her my sympathies and handed her the order. Taro milk tea with mini boba and a single white chocolate macadamia cookie.
“Today’s her birthday,” she said, clutching the small paper bag with the pastry encased within. “I’m bringing this to her grave. She would’ve liked a sense of simplicity aside from all the flowers and candles. Something she would really appreciate. Something normal, instead of something that screams death.”
As she walked out of the store, I felt the air change. A sense of emptiness, a lack of presence. A vanilla scent that I couldn’t quite remember anymore. I began to get a little emotional. Despite the fact that I never really had a true, genuine friendship with Alicen, something heavy tugged at my heart at the thought that she no longer existed on this earth. Deep inside my chest, I hoped that my prayers for her would somehow be heard. That my thoughts of her would reach her, let her know that the girl behind the counter cared.
As I fixed up my own order of a Taro milk tea with mini boba and one white chocolate macadamia nut cookie on my break and thought of Alicen’s friend, the tragic news, and the imagined scene of her bringing the boba and cookie to Alicen’s gravestone, I realized that I never got her name.
posted by caseybee
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