Playing Author- at -Starbucks would jumpstart my writing career! Not to mention it would prevent me from “going Edna.” Unlike the mom in The Awakening, I wouldn’t walk into the sea (or worse, jump off the dam at Percy Priest Lake.) To be less dramatic… if I gave writing my best shot, I’d at least avoid sinking in the proverbial pool of regret.
So it was settled. Wednesday mornings during June and July I’d write at the Belle Meade Starbucks. By immigrating to that side of town, I hoped the natives’ charmed lives would rub off on me. Some say getting published is a crap shoot. I wanted to increase my odds. All this and I’d be back home before my teenagers rolled out of bed!
That first Wednesday of Summer ’06, I gave my kids and pets the slip. Coasting out of the driveway, I was hopeful. I felt like a real writer at last. I would enjoy the thirty- minute drive, listening to NPR without Cole trying to crank up 107.5 The River. But before I was out of the subdivision, I heard rumblings in the back seat. Relentless as ever, my very own A Team– my entourage of Angst– had camped out in the car. Like the imaginary companions that followed the Russell Crowe character in A Beautiful Mind, they started their usual banter:
“Sooooo Miss WannaBe, you really think you can write something that hasn’t been said before? Something funny, smart, and… this is really rich…helpful. Your life is just so happy now, isn’t it? You who swing from spiritually hopeful to dazed and confused. You who say you love your life one minute, then wail, “I’m destined to be alone forever!” the next. I mean, come on…you are, after all, a little out there. Dreaming of moving your kids to the Cotswolds…then to Ireland…then to Italy?
And what happened to your Martha Stewart phase? The English teas on your front lawn? Reading your kids bedtime stories with a British accent as if you’re still doing Noel Coward plays? Dressing them in velvet capes and knickers so the Christmas cards would look like the perfect little family? What kind of mom leaves her kids in bed to run off to Starbucks? And what’s up with Belle Meade? Think you’re too good for your Donelson ranch, hey? Remember the Green Hills guy who said he’d pick you up for a date, then laughed: ‘Now where exactly is Egypt…I mean Donelson?’ They won’t even let you drive down West End if they check out your bank account. Stop pretending …”
“Yeah, well I’ve had enough of your crap!” I snapped. Stuffing them in the glove box, I drove on. Though they had bullied me since elementary school back in Kentucky, even they couldn’t ruin my morning.
The sun was shining and I was wearing something Starbuckish—a white eyelet skirt—a must- have for the season—a Lauren tank, and flip flops topped with grosgrain bows. I was toting my new vintage straw purse. I was driving my new car— sporting new tires. Things couldn’t be better.
That is …until I turned off of West End into the shopping center parking lot, cut the wheel too close, and ran up on the curb to the horror of Starbuckers who were reading The Tennessean at the outside tables. I prayed I hadn’t burst my new tires already. Not sure if I should apologize to the onlookers for the scare or depend on their goodwill that no harm was done, I hid behind my Jackie O glasses and sprinted by them.
Once inside, I was relieved to learn that no one could have heard my wheels squealing as I took the curb– not over the voice of Sinatra crooning in surround sound. He was smooth, sexy…LOUD. Despite my habit of denial—especially when I plan something, am on a mission, and refuse to be denied– I may have conceded to myself that writing amidst all the noise would be daunting. But rather than face this fact, I had to deal with a bigger dilemma. Only two tables were vacant and the line was long ahead of me. Should I save one of them with my laptop considering it wasn’t mine and I couldn’t afford to have it stolen? Especially since technically, I had hijacked it already? Maybe better to hope the people ahead of me were grabbing their coffee on the run.
Better keep the laptop with me. But then again, everyone there seemed so sure of the protocol… and of themselves. They ordered quickly, efficiently—no holding up the line by hunching over the counter, fumbling for money while a laptop swung off one shoulder and a purse swung off the other. Not to mention that even after I got my order I’d have to add half-and-half, then sweet-and-low to my coffee—possibly creating another clumsy scene with a bulky computer in tow.
To lay it down or not to lay it down—that was the question. Did I mention that one of my favorite books is The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers who Underachieve? My mind was stuck spinning—like the wheel that spins on the computer when a new screen is loading, making you wonder if you should wait a minute longer or reboot and cut your losses.
But if my mind was bogging down, my feet were boogying. I got into line, then walked out of line, then took two steps back toward the line, then balked– causing the guy behind me to bump into my back. (Obviously he never learned the Driver’s Ed rule about the hazards of tailing someone too closely.) Though annoyed, I swung around quickly to apologize for cutting him off. Forgetting that my laptop extended almost a foot past my shoulder, I almost took out the guy’s Grande at the table beside me.
Enough already. I had to lay down my burden. (Mind you, Dells of yesteryear were not exactly lightweight.) And this was Belle Meade for goodness sake. Why would anyone there need to steal a laptop? Lucky for me, right beside the guy with the salvaged Grande was a vacant table. I wasn’t crazy about sitting so close to the counter and all, especially since I could only get to Starbucks once a week and I wanted a perfect experience, but it looked really roomy. I hung the laptop on the chair, waited in line, and stepped up to the counter: “I’d like your largest coffee with a shot of chocolate, please.”
While the young, hip guy (probably a doctoral candidate named Rufus) taking my order didn’t correct me, he edited my request as he shouted it to the girl behind the espresso machine: “A Venti with a shot of mocha.” Making a note to self to avoid future faux pas and learn the lingo, I grabbed my coffee and cinnamon scone and skulked toward my seat. Though I shot an apologetic smile to the guy whose Café Americana I had almost capsized earlier, he frowned, then looked down through his bifocals at his USA Today. I needed to get to work anyway.
When I reached my chair, my face reddened again. On the left corner of the table there was a handicapped sticker. I knew it looked extra wide (the table, not the sticker which was the size of a post-a-note), but who knew back in ’06 that coffee shops allowed extra space for wheelchairs? I thought that was just a bathroom thing. Oh well, that settled it. I moved to the table near the window. I love the sunshine anyway. Upon attracting the stares of people who wondered why I’d trade one handicapped table for another one, I reached the second table to see the same exasperating sign on it. I decided with no other tables available, I’d just have to use it anyway. Hadn’t two women been sitting there—both perfectly mobile—when I first came in? And wouldn’t the same unspoken rule apply here that says it’s ok to use a handicap stall in the absence of a handicapped person? I sat down, unpacked my laptop, and started her up, ready to begin this very piece and my virgin voyage of writing that summer.
I typed two paragraphs. Then I was flashed a warning I’d never seen: “Save all work before losing.” Apparently my battery was going down. I found the electrical cord the computer guy from work had showed me how to use but realized I had zoned out during his demonstration. Frankly, it didn’t register I’d ever need to plug it up. When I saw people working on laptops, they were always unplugged. Like songwriters on Austin City Limits, isn’t unplugged the best way to perform anyway? Not once did Carrie Bradshaw use an electrical outlet. How could her long legs in hot pants encircle her laptop as she wrote on her bed if there had been a cord to negotiate? Reality had struck again.
I plugged up and rebooted. Then I noticed the sun was now coming into the window so brightly that I couldn’t read the screen. I needed to move again—back to the only table left—the other handicapped one. Again, I attracted scrutiny. Even though I thought I had locked my insecurities in the car, somehow they were there waving at me from the table by the window I’d just vacated. Making sure that I felt like such an imposter…
The girl who sat at home watching Brady Bunch while all the popular kids were at the first big party in 8th grade.
The girl who paid her sorority dues by eating mac and cheese or sausage and biscuits every night in the dorm because she knew how hard her mom worked to send her money for college.
The girl who took her young kids to the Renaissance Fair to teach them how to shoot bows and arrows. She had learned the skill and joined the college archery team—all to please her dad who had no sons to take hunting. Maybe her dad couldn’t teach her kids archery because he died when they were babies—and maybe it would have been nice if their dad had been around more to teach them such skills. But surely she could do this. As a teenager, she had practiced on a target in her backyard. Because she was double jointed, the string would pop the inside of her left arm which steadied the bow every time she’d pull back and release, but she’d keep at it until her arm bled. Finally it would all be worth it when she impressed her kids by hitting a bull’s eye and then helped them do the same. Apparently shooting a bow wasn’t like riding a bike. She had forgotten how to hold the arrow tightly against the bow. Unable to get even one shot off, she grabbed the kids and headed for the car, ashamed and angry with herself.
The girl who forgot to show her daughter how to put the car lights on high beam the day of her driving test. Though Taylor passed anyway, she said she knew she should have brought her dad with her instead. And the girl knew it, too.
The girl who was so busy talking in the stands at her son’s middle school football game that she mistook a boy on the opposing team for Cole. Forgetting the home team wasn’t wearing white and only seeing a boy wearing her son’s #20, she thought it surreal that her son had intercepted the ball and was dashing through the defensive line as they dove at him but missed. For a confused moment, she thought, like Willie Loman, that her Biff’s time had finally come. Though she lunged forward, thank God she caught herself before screaming his name. As everyone around her asked why she looked so shaken, she realized her mistake and played it off: “I just wanted one of our players to stop that #20.”She wasn’t about to admit she was inwardly screaming wildly for the wrong boy on the wrong side.
She already felt stupid enough for asking the coach at the start of the season where she should buy pads and the rest of the “outfit.” Even worse, she had later slipped and, flashing back to her own ballet and tap days, had referred to his uniform as a “costume.” When it came to sports and “men things,” she’d always felt inept–knowing as much about tying a necktie as she did about buying a jock strap.
She’d had a 4.0 as an English major and held a Masters degree. She’d been Head of the Department for over twenty years, taught college courses, and was a reader for the national Advanced Placement English Literature Exam She had led school groups and traveled to a dozen countries numerous times. She stayed in touch with friends and former students scattered all over the US and abroad. She had raised her kids with the exceptions of every other weekend and Tuesday nights since they were two and five. She and her sister had been the executors of her dad’s and grandmother’s estates. They had planned their dad’s funeral, and while still in shock, each gave a speech about what he had meant to them. But despite all of this, when friends teased her with blond jokes, she sometimes took them seriously. Because while she always seemed to give others slack, she spent so many years trying to be perfect. The girl who even at four or five couldn’t wait to be grown up— because grownups were in control. They weren’t blind-sighted. They were in charge of their lives. They didn’t have to depend on anybody.
But for all her trying to be grown up, to “arrive,” to have it all together and live happily ever after, she could never completely shake feeling like a little girl inside. She might go months or even a year or two thinking she’d outgrown that powerless child and she’d outrun those childhood bullies, but sooner or later they always showed up. That girl had always shown up.
From Magical Thinking to Wretched Retreating
No matter how hard I had always tried, sooner or later a single embarrassing moment could send me into the corner, feeling that’s exactly where I belonged. The slightest mistake could inflate and then translate into a life of failure. Who was I to think I had anything to offer? I was an impostor on so many levels. It was 2006 and again, in that moment in Starbucks, the A Team reminded me I wasn’t good enough. I’d never been pretty enough. I’d never felt loved enough. At least not for long.
The monster I had always feared and hated most was the feeling of rejection. I’d always wanted the inner security and outer radiance of a woman who is loved. Not just desired, but cherished somewhere by one man. For ten years I’d tried dating services, set-ups by friends, even eharmony, but I couldn’t make myself attracted to someone I didn’t find attractive—even if he was a nice guy. Nor could I make someone I was attracted to be attracted to me—at least not for the long haul. In school I had studied hard, made good grades, and got a job. I had set goals and reached them. But getting the right guy wasn’t the same as getting the right job. I realized I couldn’t control when– or if– I’d find The One. Thus I started heeding the advice of those who claim that just when a person stops looking, her prince arrives. The advice that says God will provide what—or in this case, whom—we need just when we need him. The advice that says rather than sitting around waiting, I should use the time to work on developing the very qualities in myself that I desired in a mate.
So focusing on personal growth, I’d tried new things– traveling with total strangers, learning a new language, discovering a latent talent. I found I could paint and entered an art show. I learned I love ballroom dancing and “muddin’” (4-wheeling in the rain). I tailgated at Titans’ football games and joined the Nashville Film Circle. Some of my closest friends became people who seemed at first so different from me–like a group of guys and girls who were coaches at my school. We spent four summer vacations in Florida together—them reading Friday Night Lights, me reading An Italian Education. I was the world’s oldest bridesmaid in two weddings of twentysomething friends, where I danced all night long at both receptions—not to mention their bachelorette parties. I sang bad karaoke when my sister and friends surprised me with a limo on my fortieth birthday.
And I hired a limo for my daughter and her friends when she turned twelve. And I took her to Europe and back when she was sixteen–introducing her to beloved Italian friends–showing her the world from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the peaks of the Italian Alps. I stretched us both in new ways, and I carried on with familiar traditions. I continued hosting Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners. I settled into the life of being a single parent—a rare breed at the conservative Christian school where I taught. Some days I thanked God for all the good stuff in my life. Other days I felt despair over the bad.
I looked around at the Starbucks crowd. Half-serious, I had called them “my people.” I was as educated as they were. For years I’d driven to their side of town for restaurants and movies my side of town couldn’t offer. In fact, I’d laughingly shot back at those who gave me a hard time about driving across town: “Money might determine where I live. It might determine where I teach. It might determine where my kids go to school. But it WILL NOT determine where I drink my coffee.” But that first Wednesday, it felt as if it did.
(to be continued in Part 6, the final chapter…Starbucks in Reality)