Featured Prose Spring 2021

Coffee Breaks

by Sophie Boyd-Fliegel

Whenever I need a break from Kiosk Koffee I pad across the cramped and sticky floor, swing the bubble-letter Open to the cursive Closed, wipe my hair into a tall ponytail and go get some real coffee. It’s not that I don’t have pride in my work, I just know what I want. Regulars come to Kiosk to get on with their lives, not to revel in them. Sometimes I just want a little glitter in my piss. Walking quickly to avoid my boss’ general suspicions of the leisurely, I flip out my compact mirror from my purse (also mini) and lick my fingers to comb back my brows. It’s the quickest way to look less disappointed. I’ve been told by more than one person that I have “resting-washed-up face,” which wasn’t originally accidental.

I wouldn’t be so earnest about softening my aura except that the two new guys who work at real coffee look like god’s gift to Twilight fans. Not that I need to defend my taste in books, or guys. I just think it’s fun to pretend perky. These beautiful bastards could work anywhere they wanted in the whole wide mall. Nike. PacSun. Abercrombie. But they chose this commission-free Moby-Dick monopoly. I tell myself it’s not creepy to remain in regular need of their assistance.

I walk in and, if they’re not with a customer, the lanky boys will be busy pushing vape clouds under the counter or making Sharpie art on their skinny jeans. I’ve been at Kiosk for three years, ever since I graduated college and told my family I was moving back in. But the turnover here is ridiculous. Copies of the smocked and pocked-face youth rotate every few months. Apparently, this is the place for people with somewhere to move on to.

I’ve got a joke with myself for when one boy asks for my order. I say, “just my regular,” and he looks at me like I’m confusing him for the other, which, half the time, I am. The charm of it is that they’re both too lazy to follow up, so I’ll get something different each time. Whipped cream roulette. They work with stunning inaccuracy. It’s like an exhibit. I’ve got my own strategies for when I get harassed at work. It usually involves speaking only on the inhale, or in rhyme. Something disorienting enough for her (and it usually is her) to leave as soon as possible but not too rude as to be demanded the whereabouts of my manager. But these boys live like life couldn’t be less interesting. Or threatening. One time I literally made eye contact with one of them as he picked his nose while making my drink. He smiled and nodded what’s up. Christ, I thought. To be that free.

I grab my green-and-white cardboard and cover the logo with a sleeve. I leave some change for their services. “You boys keep me humble,” I say on my way out. And I mean it. Next I take the long way back around the block of shops to Kiosk. I love the way carrying the cup around makes me feel like I look like I have somewhere to be. I’m all, hey world, it’s me, but to-go. If I ever make a stop, it’s right inside Victoria’s Secret where the sale rack is. I usually just pick some tiny things up and put them down again but I’m always on the lookout for the underwear that’s going to turn my life around.

Once, I was feeling bold and took thirteen pairs into the dressing room, all balled in my fists under a silk black robe. I put on the robe, walked out to look in the mirror, made sure one of the employees saw me self-admiring, and then ducked back into the stall. I gave the robe back to the chick who looked closest to my age and told her thank you, but the material just didn’t look like it would last. I remember how she didn’t laugh, just pressed her lips and grabbed it back and spun away, but all the better that she didn’t watch me walk out of there, shuffling slightly with all thirteen thongs layered on top of each other under my jean skirt. That night after I got home I took all the tags off and tried on each of them individually. I wondered why none of them made me feel pretty. It’s because they’re stolen, I decided. My self-improvement panties would be a purchase, well-earned.

The worst part of this routine? I don’t even drink coffee. The sugar makes me break out. That’s right. I spend half of an hour’s wages worth in cash to be ignored by boys so tall I confuse them for handsome. They’re too boring to flirt back, but it works. I’m both their most and least valued customer.

These non-exchanges rile me up, so I try to make my walk back to work as soothing as possible. The mall is what I once would’ve called my happy place. Now it’s just my place. But it doesn’t matter if I’m happy or not because the mall takes care of me either way. Just like every kid who was ever breastfed in the mall, linoleum and fluorescents give me a stabilizing reverence. Every time I smell the enriched cinnamon yeast of a Wetzel’s pretzel I flashback to a pietà of my mother, swaddling my enormous howling head, my tantrum an ode to the forbidden Fruity Pebble special. Around five I was old enough to reach the coins forgotten in the fountains. I grew to crave the rush that came from first from hiding quarters from my mother and again from the glistening sugar glaze, which grew, as religious experiences often do, into a mild addiction. The bread of Wetzel’s, broken for me. I’ve come to recognize this time as something of a cocooning. Desire’s first impression, my mother always said, smooths its imperfections.

Now and again I’ll forgive myself for a bad skin day and take the escalator down to grab one last pretzel. If I have time, or my boss is visibly hungover, I’ll slow down on my ride back up and make a point of noticing things. Like the thin lines of afternoon light cast down from the domed skylights, or the way the giant fake plants draw any wanderers inadvertently to them. Some people think of the mall as man’s opposition to nature. But it’s actually the place we’ve built that most closely mimics it. The lights rise and fall with the same dedication to daylight as wildflowers. The displays listen to the turning of the earth, shedding and layering fads like leopards do fur. I would even say the mall defines the seasons, if not definitively ushers them in. Malls are neighborhoods. Colonies. Hives. In them we find ornamentation to set ourselves apart while growing more similar. There’s an ebb and flow here. If I close my eyes I could convince myself it’s a tide.

Life cycles in the mall. With property values what they are, even the big chains change location with Darwinian predictability. It’s sell or be sold. People swarm to celebrate brick-and-mortar births. And I’ve seen tears shed for stores passed. Kiosk Koffee, strangely, is the one constant. Rumor has it the mall manager’s husband had an affair with the guy who opened it back in the 80s. They’ve “been in business” together ever since.

I clutch and sniff at my lukewarm cup, finally back behind the Kiosk counter. I don’t flip back the sign. Instead, I trace the grain on the plastic wood counter, summoning the legacy of love, lust, survival, whatever has managed to keep it here. I wonder if my manager would put me on health and dental in exchange for short poems and more smiling. I chuck my coffee down the tiny silver sink.

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