Rei, Roy, and the Cappuccino Misadventure

It was 2008, a Sunday night, early rainy season. I’m sure about the rainy season part.

I was sitting on the floor playing guitar as Natalie bounced around around like a nervous grasshopper. My house was full of people eating and drinking coffee and playing music, just like most every Sunday night.

At about 8 o’clock, Natalie darted over to me, almost bowling me over as she skidded recklessly across the carpet. She plopped down and whispered something in my ear. I glanced at her and nodded slowly. I said something, and she squeaked with excitement. It was time for our weekly cappuccino date.

A moment later, we skipped out into the cool, fresh air and swung up into the absurdly high seats of my family’s large white van (affectionately nicknamed Moby). With all the confidence of the few months I’d been driving a stick shift, I maneuvered deftly in reverse around the cars in our driveway.

We successfully cleared the L-shaped driveway, and I was starting to feel pretty good about my sweet driving skills when I realized that we were quite stuck in the ankle-deep mud outside our gate. Shifting into first just resulted in a dramatic mud-flinging affair, courtesy of spinning tires. Yes, definitely rainy season. We swallowed our pride, and with some help from our smirking fathers, were soon on our way.

Mount Elgon Hotel was less than a kilometre away. We arrived, parked poorly, and walked in with all our teenage mzungu suaveness. At the bar, we ordered cappuccinos with the air of people who knew their coffee. That’s how I remember it, anyway.

The bartender completely ignored us. Unaffected, we tried again in English and then in Swahili. Finally, the bartender glanced up at us. “Sorry please, but the cappuccino machine is even broken and the man who can fix it has gone to Kampala until tomorrow.”

Lesser expatriate teens might have been deterred, but this was not our first mechanical difficulty. We mustered our dignity and primly seated ourselves in the chairs by the window. I pulled out the thermos of piping hot, freshly French-pressed coffee that we’d had the foresight to bring from home. Natalie pulled out a thermos of steamed milk, and we enjoyed our cafés au lait in peace for some few minutes.

There’s no good transition sentence to use in beginning to talk about the Indian men who now enter the story, because their entrance was abrupt and unexpected. They stood uncomfortably close to us, asked if they could buy us drinks and what our phone numbers were and what we were doing in Uganda. They told us that they could take us to their hotel rooms and give us everything we ever wanted. We answered evasively as it became clearer that the men were several beers the drunker of sober.

After a few minutes of this, Natalie subtly picked up the thermoses. I grabbed my purse and car keys. We stood up in tandem and started walking toward the door. I looked back and saw the men walking after us. We walked faster and faster, finally breaking into a run as we hit the parking lot. The men were just coming out the front door as I reached Moby. With one smooth motion, I jabbed the car key into the passenger-side keyhole and unlocked the door. I dived across the seat. Natalie was close behind me. As soon as we were both in, I started the car and roared out of the parking lot. We took a back way home. When we were sure that we weren’t being followed, we collapsed into helpless giggles.

When we got back to my house, the Sunday night party was winding down. We sauntered in without a bit of sheepishness. “How were your cappuccinos?” my mom asked. “Machine was broken,” I said, “but we had fun anyway. Nothing too exciting.”

Some stories must wait five years to be told. Sorry, Mom.

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Two middle-aged balding men sit in the corner, hunched over mugs of what they’re content to pretend is something manly. I wonder, is this where they meant to be when they were young with heads full of ideas and ambition and hair? They sit gathering dust and pollen and vitamin D in prematurely humid April air, like men, like what they need to be, like people who can accomplish things, but here we are in Arkansas and their hair is gone and their drinks are cold and maybe the fire in their chests was always all for naught.

(What I’m most afraid of is that I’ll grow cold and bored and lose my wanderlust and wonderlust, that I’ll never be able to reclaim the dreams I tenderly nursed when I was young and they were impossible)

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Shuddering toss-back hours-old Americano
Quad shot cause that’s how we do
Like to prove that caffeine can’t touch me
Red eyes droopy head dead brain
Green microwave clock blink blink 1:20 21 22
Writing editing studying jittery faltering
I wish I could pass my own test

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The word nostalgia was coined in 1668 by Johannes Hofer, originally meaning “severe homesickness” and considered to be a disease. It comes from Greek algos “pain, grief, distress” and nostos “homecoming.”

Everywhere I go, I carry the world that I saw as I wandered and wondered through life, gallivanting and meandering by turns. Invisible friends line my neural pathways. They smirk at forgotten jokes and seem at once more and less real than the people I see every day. Invisible mountains form the backdrop of this muddy scene full of goats and chickens and venders selling chapatis on the side of the road. I can almost smell the coffee brewing and hear the music being played and imagine the people draped everywhere across furniture engrossed in conversation or play or rest.

I’m not a sentimental person, but nostalgia is killer.

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Neither natural nor notable in sounds made but
Rather padded feet proceed silently in hallways that
Allow no hint of outside air chirping crickets croaking
Encroaching frogs or owls until their neglected bedtime
But here we are cocooned by walls and floors and atmospheres of carpet that hold the dust of years and fears and cover the hardness of a reality that’s more concrete cold than hardwood expensive.

This is the bad metaphor inspired by the deadened plush undertones of the word carpet and by the unfortunate childhood association of stifling confinement with carpeted floors –

But I guess all I’m really saying is that I want to hear the steps I take and I love houses that let in the sounds of the world and –

To cover all those up feels like a profound cheapening of the value of the cold concrete floors that welcome the whole of a hot tired body and –

Dunk! Into the cold clear realities that blessedly strip away the fuzz of propaganda and ornately carpeted half-truth.

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Steps fall into the footprints of times past when you were successful and effort seemed effortless. The irony, you realize, is that in all your efforts to recreate your old self, you’re just copying the mundane that hasn’t been original for years. The exciting things you do seem forced and the greatest real excitement lies in finishing homework before midnight or getting to sleep in an extra hour.

It’s a good thing humans don’t come equipped with a “restore to default settings” button or we’d never get anywhere.

Those moments of grace when connection seems real and every sense feels alive

pull the atoms of my fading body into reluctant concert as we seek

to live, to embrace light, to practice resurrection.

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Such beautiful people

“I’m very military and martial arts trained.”

“What I’m saying is that I’m very intelligent in martial arts. I could answer questions about martial arts.”

Her big, light brown eyes pushed into the space between us, daring me to question her. 

“I’m just here to protect you young girls from men who want to kidnap you. That man over there, he kidnaps girls like you. You’re all very pretty young girls. This coffeeshop is not a safe place for you to be working.”

The tattoos on both her cheeks were colorful and feminine, cutting a contrast to her jagged, close-cropped hair. 

“I’m here to protect you. I have military training. I was kidnapped here for two years.”

We sat, barely a foot of space between us, hardly enough space for the Holy Spirit. Her clothes were neat, her accent Southern, her mannerisms jerky. 

“This isn’t Arkansas, you know. You think it’s Arkansas, but it’s really Arizona. They reprogrammed it to trick you. I need to contact Westcare Detox Facility, in Phoenix, Arizona. They can pick me up and provide a military escort to make sure you girls get home safely.”

She leaned over, took my hand. “My name is Ashley. I’m from Houston. Where are you from? You can tell me the truth. It’s okay.”

“I’m Leila. I’m from Uganda,” I said.

“That’s near New Jersey.” Her assertion rang confident.

“It’s a beautiful place.” That seemed the safest reply.

“I could call the military to keep you safe,” she said with a conspiratorial air. “My father owns the military. My husband’s family runs it.”

She picked up her phone. It hadn’t rung. “Yes, hello, he is here. Wearing all brown. Grey hair. Short. Glasses. Very dirty. He’s going to kidnap the girls.” She put it down, picked it up again. “Yes, I’m at the coffeeshop. It’s a nice place. The girls are all pretty.” And again, talking into the silent phone, “I’m going to help the girls. The men around here are going to kidnap them. I was kidnapped for two years.”

She straightened up into a professional pose. “You know,” she told me, “You should never go home with any of these men. If they are dirty and you don’t know them, they just want to kidnap you. They get you on their right arm and then they do whatever they want to you.”

She paused, looking carefully at me. “I’m a psychic reader, you know.”

And then she retreated into her mind for a moment, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I never would have expected that my work shift would end in such an odd place. Her grandiose claims and unlikely tales were hauntingly familiar. I’ll never forget sitting just as close to my little brother as he told me that he would fly if he jumped off a building and heal immediately if he cut himself. He told me that he was secretly an assassin, that he could see through flesh to the bones underneath, that he could read minds. 

I haven’t felt what I felt tonight since my conversations with him. 

Soul-bruising heaviness. Uncertainty like I’ve never known elsewhere. Caution, fear, compassion, sadness. 

Maybe it would have been easier to deal with her if she had seemed like she meant us any harm, but I think she was genuinely trying to help us. She wanted to make sure that we were not kidnapped or attacked, and she was willing to put herself between us and potential attackers. 

She was crazy. Irrational. Textbook schizophrenic. 

After I had sat with her for about half an hour, sifting through word salad for bits of sense and trying to help her contact Phoenix, someone called the police. They came and led her away, telling her not to come back. As she left, she yelled back at us with an air of benediction – 

“You’re all such beautiful people.”

I may not sleep tonight.

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