Erica Nicole Griffin is a scholar and consultant. She holds a PhD in the sociological foundations of American system from Arizona State University where she won a writing year fellowship to support that research. Her academic background informs her ideas about love, revolution, retribution, eternity, and rest, and how those might show up in the Black imagination. Currently, she is building two collections. The first features short revenge fantasies and the second is a collection of love poems where the Black girl always wins. Erica Nicole was born and raised in Atlanta. She lives there with her two children. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter.
As Cool As You Please
by Erica Nicole Griffin
Monday Self-care for Susan was coffee. Every morning. Step one: grab the door handle. Step two: enter the shop and quietly affirm what Susan hoped was ultimately true: I am worthy. I am loved. I am successful. Step three: feet square on the welcome mat, pause, assume a tadasana. Her feet were the base of the mountain, with her toes and heels acting as the four corners and her crown of blond curls pulled into a messy top knot - the apex. Step four: soften the spine and relax the jaw, the palms, and the brow. Take two breaths and release all thought, wonder, worry, and expectation. With that clarity and freedom, Susan was primed for step five: Kinesha. Kinesha was the favorite among the regular customers. She was attentive, memorized the nuances of their drink orders and nodded graciously at the broken mugs and puddles of vanilla milk that their dogs and toddlers left for her to clean. When Susan came into Coffee Shop six months ago, with her mascara in ribbons below wet, red eyes, Kinesha lit up. In a beat, she stepped away from the register and went to Susan. Kinesha clasped Susan’s hands in her own while she listened to Susan sputter on about her divorce, shitty friendships, and downslide at work. Since then, Kinesha was Susan’s lighthouse. And each morning this millennial, Black girl, with the endless braids would smile a smile that guided Susan safely to port. On the first Monday of the seventh month Susan spied a stranger. There were always two baristas at the registers. Susan recognized the skinny, ginger boy on the left with his fumbling fingers and wrinkled shirt; Patrick, or Pete or something. To his left was the stranger. She was a Kinesha-type for sure, but not. She didn’t have long braids. Instead, there were dreadlocks would have brushed her shoulders if they weren’t wrapped in a white cloth around her head. And she wasn’t smiling in Susan’s direction. She wasn’t unsure or frenzied in front of the busy line like Patrick-Pete and she wasn’t expecting Susan. She just was. Susan filled her belly with courage and breath and made her way over. On her exhale she a recognized a commonplace snobbery in affluent neighborhood stores. Customers who were in cue to order from the stranger were stepping out of her line and cueing up for Patrick-Pete. The upside of having regular customers was a fantastic tip rate. The downside was that they didn’t trust new baristas to perfect their orders. These people had been spoiled by Kinesha, and would rather order from Patrick-Pete than risk a bad coffee experience with the newbie. Pathetic. Susan judged her people. When it was Susan’s turn, she smugly slid up to the new barista’s register, met her name tag and then her eyes.
“Hi, Maya. You’re a new face behind the counter!” “Welcome to the 16th Street Coffee Shop. Would you like to try the Pumpkin-spiced latte?” Maya’s boilerplate was forgivable. It was her first day, after all. She would learn soon enough that Susan would die before drinking anything pumpkin-spiced and that it was never necessary upsell to anyone here. In fact, the full tip jar depended upon making regulars feel like regulars. “Um, no! I don’t get how people can drink that stuff!” Susan smiled big and paused so that Maya could step into her clear opening for banter. Instead, Maya put her eyes into Susan’s and continued with the sell. “Okay. What can I get started for you today?” “A medium Earl Grey tea, with two packets of honey in the cup before it is prepared. Can you be sure to double cup?” Susan was now genuinely concerned about her order.
“Yes, I will. That will be $2.69. If you have a chip on your card, feel free to insert ‘right there’.” Maya’s focus never left Susan’s face, but her expression seemed to not read Susan at all. Susan felt like she was talking to an AI panel on a vending machine. As she paid, Susan gazed at Maya. She certainly was a fresh, delicate thing. Her nose was dusted in freckles and there was just enough blush on her cheeks to match the pink gloss on her lips. She also had a tattoo tucked behind her ear. It was tough to make it out. Something like a circle with little bird-like feet. Maya’s voice interrupted Susan’s inspection. “Do you need a receipt?” “Nope. Thanks.” “Okay. Jude, down at the bar, will prepare your drink and have it ready for you momentarily.” Before Susan could step away, Maya called out “next” to emptiness. People were still avoiding her to order from Patrick-Pete.
Tuesday Susan was late and took a millisecond to be a mountain. Then the sight of Maya soured the breath in her belly. She did notice, however that a few customers had chosen to give their orders to Maya. Mission accomplished, Susan thought. “Good morning. You want an Earl Grey, right? Honey. Double Cup?” Maya remembered Susan. “Yes, that is perfect. So, how is your second day here treating you?”
“It’s fine.” Those eyes swiveled away from the Susan’s, to the screen, to the card reader and back. “That will be $2.69. Feel free to use the chip reader.” She gave the credit card machine a light tap. “So, are you at this store permanently? Have you replaced the other barista? Kinesha?”
“Yes.” Maya then turned to Jude and called out the order. They exchanged smiles. Jude winked over his shoulder. Susan snatched her credit card from the reader and shoved it back in her wallet. _____________ “Yeah, she is the new register barista. She’s good on the bar, too though.” Jude was annoyed that Susan split his attention with messiness. After all she was just one pair of longing eyes in the bog of blondes pooling up against his bar. They thought he was cool. For some it was enough that his forearm flexed as he mixed drinks. Others would cut the angles of his jaw and the waves in his hair, stash them away and paste him back together in their sheets at night. Each one had laid next to her husband and still took her time thinking through the options with Jude. Some imagined climbing his spine and perching on his shoulders. Others wanted to come home and find him stranded on their stoops, hungry and in need of food and fresh clothes. Some delighted in an assault. His hands snatching up her skirt and so on. In reality, their breathy consumption every morning left Jude’s shirt dingy and his skin dry. “Well,” Susan was careful not to appear like a gossip, “What about Kinesha? Did she move away?” “Nah. She enrolled in State and sometimes picks up shifts at the campus Coffee Shop. But she doesn’t work here anymore.” Jude glanced toward the bog.
“Oh, I knew she dreamed of graduate school. I just didn’t think she was enrolling this semester. I wonder why she didn’t tell me. We’re good friends.” Susan said more to herself than Jude. Jude chuckled. “Were you?” “Sure,” Susan was surprised by his snark. “You’ve seen us. We were thick as thieves.”
“Nah, it’s cool.” Jude’s jaw flexed a bit as he devoted all of his focus back on the bar.
Wednesday Susan spent her time in line evaluating Maya. Her dreadlocks were resting on her shoulders. She was objectively young. Her skin stretched along her cheekbones with a sheen. And those freckles. They dusted her nose and chin and even her lips. Her collarbone and jaw line were pronounced; she was thin. Ingenue thin. She also had several piercings with delicate studs and hoops rising up the ridges of both ears. She was beyond beautiful. She was elegant. It was a provocation just to look at her. The shop was in the middle of a rush and Maya’s line was now longer than Patrick-Pete’s. Her shoulders rose and fell as she handed each a customer a drink. Her head would glide to and fro when she called a new espresso order to Jude. Even her breathing seemed musical. Susan measured her inhales with the rise and fall of Maya’s bust. By the time they were face-to-face she had composed a hymn in her honor and was involuntarily swaying to the beat. “Welcome to Coffee Shop. Do you want your regular tea today?” “You’re very beautiful, you know that?” Susan instantly lowered her head in shame. It was a bid. A bad one.
“I do.” Maya replied. Her barren intensity gutted Susan. “Well,” Susan began with a stutter, “That’s good. A woman like yourself should know it. You should be self-aware and confident.” “Will you be having your regular tea today?” Susan ignored procedure, “You know, you aren’t very friendly. Kinesha was friendly. And interested. She was kind!” This was an unplanned pivot. Susan hadn’t quite decided whether or not she would complain about Maya. But it certainly felt right. “This is my third day ordering from you, and you seem really annoyed or something.” Susan remained in place, staring back at Maya, fully aware that this manipulation was a gamble. What if this didn’t work? What if Maya lashed out in defense of her professionalism? Then again, it could all be worth it. And if the start of their relationship had to be Maya apologizing for poor customer service, Susan could live with that. She could work with that. “Would you like to speak to a manager?” “No.” Susan hissed and leaned forward for discretion. “I just- I just wondered if I had done something to offend you.” Maya had not even flinched at the idea of her manager getting involved. The gamble was a loss. Maya might never engage. Susan’s breath singed her lungs. “Here is your tea.” Maya connected with Susan’s watery eyes as she took eons to slide the cup of tea across the counter. “You cunt.” Susan whispered. This wasn’t a gamble. It was genuine. Here Susan was on the verge of tears Maya doubled down. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps Maya was just a piece of shit person who refused to engage the kind human beings around her. As the first tear fell, there was the slightest jolt in one of Maya’s eyebrows. It wasn’t affection or contrition. It was offense. Maybe even anger. Ah yes! Susan could work with that. “Oh my God! I’m so sorry!” Susan gushed and brought a jittery hand to her mouth in shock. “I can’t believe I just said that. I am just so upset because, well, because of my own issues and I took it out on you. I’m just so sorry!” Said the eyebrow, “Do you want your receipt?” “No, no. Please hear me out. Please don’t be mad.” Susan shook her head furiously causing her yellow curls to bounce out of her top knot. It wasn’t working. She was losing and executed an utterly ridiculous strategy. She reached up to Maya’s cheek and caressed it like she would the face of a heartbroken child. When her fingers landed Susan was scandalized by texture. It was silken. Susan hadn’t realized it, but the freckles had given her the irrational impression that Maya’s skin was grainy and rough. It wasn’t. It was sublime; almost as if she had brushed her fingers against cold cream. Susan’s eyes were still closed in awe when she felt the weight of Maya’s hand swat her face so hard that she was knocked to the floor. Later After Maya hit her, the whole shop fell into chaos and the manager intervened on Susan’s behalf. He collected her off the floor and pleaded with her to forgive and forget. For a reward, Susan was given a year pass to any Coffee Shop in the world and a lifetime pass to the 16th Street Coffee Shop. In addition, she could expect a call from corporate to negotiate further restitution.
And although the manager made a public spectacle of firing Maya, she left angry, but without complaint or ceremony. The dilemma persisted behind every moment of her day and greeted her in the morning. For the first Thursday in six months, Susan went straight to work. She drank tea from the break room and repeated her affirmations in a bathroom stall.
Friday Susan pulled on the door of Coffee Shop and stepped over the welcome mat and passed the registers. Her heart was already racing and joy was rising once again. Kinesha was there. She wasn’t behind the counter. She was sitting at a table in plain clothes. She was bent over a book reading and taking notes. Her braids cascaded over bare shoulders that Susan had never seen. Susan hung back a bit to watch her friend for a moment. She was as perfect as ever. And not alone. While studying she was also chatting with others at the table. Eventually, Susan bounded over to the table and let out an eager: “Hi stranger!” Kinesha glanced up and caught her old friend’s eyes just long enough to reply, “Sorry, this seat is taken.” And back down to her notes she went. “Um, Kinesha?! Don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Susan from 16th Street! Jude told me you worked at the university Coffee Shop sometimes, so I figured I’d drop by.” Kinesha glanced back up. “I know who you are. Seat’s taken, though.” Those eyes. That face. It was Kinesha alright, but she wasn’t the bright light welcoming Susan to shore. Susan’s knees buckled. She might have heard a laugh or two. She wasn’t sure. She was sure, however, that she was not Kinesha’s friend. She wasn’t Maya’s friend. She wasn’t married. She wasn’t loved or worthy or successful. She wasn’t a mountain. She was
something else. It was that something else that quickened Susan’s spine and stiffened her palms. She lifted up off her heels and pressed her toes down as she towered over Kinesha and locked her hands around Kinesha’s neck. The squeeze was extraordinary. Her cells luxuriated in seeing Kinesha’s face animate from shock to anger to terror. Susan squeezed tighter. Surely there was more Kinesha in there. And she was right.
Kinesha’s mood shifted to desperation as she clutched Susan’s wrists, hopelessly wrenching them outward. Kinesha’s friends joined in. They mauled Susan from every angle. For Susan, each impact was a revelation. In the midst of the scrum, she took note of the shades of brown around her. The hair, the voices, and bodies. They were a Broadway company, and she was the principal. She could hear chaos and smell her own blood as it broke from her face, dripped down and mingled with the sweat on Kinesha’s terrified brow. The breeze of the melee whooshed up and through her blouse. It cooled her skin. With her thumbs barely gripping Kinesha’s throat and the friends overtaking her completely, Susan took two breaths and closed her eyes and was made whole.
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.