Chapter Track: "Us and Them" - Pink Floyd
It was 5:45 PM when Joaquin Gonzalez - or Qui-Gon, as he'd been called since his youth - was finally done... at least with anything he had to do on campus. The fifty-nine-year-old environmental sciences professor still had papers to grade, but that didn't have to be done here.
Qui-Gon was a creature of habit, and one of his usual routines was to visit Mountains of the Moon, a combination coffeehouse and hookah lounge, a few blocks away from the college. He was more of a tea drinker than a coffee drinker, but Mountains of the Moon had a great selection of tea, and he liked the atmosphere - Indian sari fabrics hung on the walls, displays of African sculptures, and framed pictures and autographs of various rock stars from the 1960s and 1970s, like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. Plus, the coffeehouse itself was named after a Grateful Dead song. It was a nice touch in 2018; Qui-Gon and one of his colleagues, Nicolae Dooku, who taught ancient history, were both products of the hippie era and lamented that kids these days forgot what real singing sounded like, with their Vocaloid and their Autotune. There wasn't much they had in common, otherwise, apart from both being transplants from the UK and being Bernie Sanders supporters.
Qui-Gon got in his yellow electric-converted vintage VW van and put on the classic rock station on his way to the coffeehouse. "Us and Them" by Pink Floyd was playing, and he found himself singing along. Winter was just beginning to thaw, but he still drove slowly and carefully, even when a driver behind him rode on his tail and beeped. The song was almost over when Qui-Gon pulled into the coffeehouse parking lot, and he waited until the end to shut off the engine and get out of the van, bringing his briefcase with him.
Qui-Gon sat at his usual table, which was near a grove of bonsai trees and an indoor waterfall. The coffeehouse was a bit crowded at this hour, but he was set on getting his tea. After he'd been waiting for close to five minutes, a barista approached his table. It wasn't one of the regulars Qui-Gon was used to seeing - he looked new. Painfully new.
He was also one of the most gorgeous specimens of male that Qui-Gon had ever laid eyes on. Short auburn hair, full beard, piercing blue eyes. Unfortunately dressed like a hipster, wearing a black scarf indoors, over a grey apron with the purple knotwork crescent moon and faux-illuminated-Celtic font logo of Mountains of the Moon, paisley mauve shirt with a plain black vest, and skinny jeans. The baristas all wore their own clothing instead of uniforms, but they had those aprons, and the name tags. This one said OBI.
Obi looked very much like he didn't want to be there. "What can I get for you?" he asked in a flat tone of voice.
"I'll have the citrus mint green tea," Qui-Gon said.
Obi nodded, jotted it down on a notepad, and walked off. When he did, Qui-Gon opened his briefcase and took out the stack of papers he needed to start grading. He wasn't really in the mood for it, but the papers weren't going to grade themselves, and there were a lot of them, so he had to start now. The coffeehouse was crowded enough that he waited awhile, and got deeply engrossed in his work, so much that he didn't notice when the barista came back...
...and accidentally made a mess all over the papers as he put the tea down.
"Jesus fucking Christ," Qui-Gon heard himself say - usually mild-mannered, not prone to lashing out, but this was a disaster.
"Oh, fuck, I'm sorry," the barista said, taking out napkins from his apron pocket, trying to wipe up the mess.
Qui-Gon spread out the wet papers and blotted them as best as he could, but already the ink was starting to streak. This was one of his worst nightmares come true. "Bloody hell."
"I'm sorry." The barista reached to blot the papers and Qui-Gon swatted his hands away, because rubbing at the wrong angle would streak the ink even more. "I'm so, so sorry."
There was barely any liquid left in the cup. Qui-Gon leaned back in his chair, facepalmed, and made dying whale noises. Then he realized some of the tea had dripped off the table onto his chinos, making him look like he wet his pants. The dying whale noises intensified.
Their eyes met. The barista looked genuinely terrified, and Qui-Gon forced himself to calm down and take a few deep breaths - this was just an accident, accidents happened. "I'm sorry," the barista said again.
"You've said that." Qui-Gon nodded.
"It's my first day." The barista looked down and ran a nervous hand through his hair. "I..." He swallowed hard.
Qui-Gon looked at the near-ruined papers, and sighed deeply.
The barista took off, and Qui-Gon desperately wanted to get out of there, just pack things up and go home, but he had to let these soggy papers dry before he put them back in his briefcase. He looked at them again - at least he could make out enough words to be able to guess anything that was too smudged, but this was ridiculously unprofessional, and it was his own damn fault for having them anywhere near liquid.
Qui-Gon had his face in his hands when the barista came back, alerting Qui-Gon to his presence with a clear of the throat. Qui-Gon peeked through his hands and saw the barista had another cup of tea, as well as a plate of two blueberry scones.
"On the house," he said, and set them down gently on the opposite end of the table.
That was good customer service, a nice save. Qui-Gon liked to thank his baristas by name, and as he pulled the cup and plate closer to him, he nodded and said, "Thank you, Odie."
The barista gave him a look that could peel paint off walls, and Qui-Gon then looked at his name tag and saw OBI again, and felt ashamed. Why did my brain turn that into Odie. What the fuck.
"Enjoy," Obi snapped in a way that very much suggested he did not want Qui-Gon to enjoy, and then he walked off again.
Qui-Gon felt like an ass - this had to be the young man's worst first day on a job anywhere - and it haunted him as he re-absorbed himself in grading papers. When he had finished his tea and scones and the papers were dry enough to safely go back in the briefcase, he went up to the counter to pay. Ahsoka, a young Indian-American woman who attended the college and worked at the coffeehouse part-time, handled his money, and when she gave him back his change he lingered. "Is Odie around? I'd like to hand him a tip personally."
Qui-Gon immediately facepalmed, and wanted to dissolve into the floor when he saw Obi's face peek out from the kitchen area behind the counter, glaring. HIS NAME IS NOT ODIE, he screamed at himself internally.
Obi stepped out, and Qui-Gon handed him a twenty, which was far more than the cost of his tea. Obi looked at it in disbelief.
"You tried," Qui-Gon said, patted Obi on the shoulder, and then hurried out of there.
It was dark now, the moon was out, and on a night like this Qui-Gon often liked to take a detour to drive through the park, appreciating the moonlight on the pond. But today he just went straight home. His green-eyed black cat, Fernando, greeted him at the door, acting like he hadn't seen Qui-Gon in fifty years. Qui-Gon went to the kitchen to feed him, Fernando trotting behind him meowing all the way, and once that was done, he heated up leftovers for himself.
But he didn't have much of an appetite, still feeling stressed out from the experience at the coffeehouse. And after dinner, when he changed from his rainbow tie-dye T-shirt, black tie with rainbow smiley faces on it, and chinos, into a set of soft, comfy red plaid flannel pajamas, he still felt keyed up. He took out the weighted blanket he used on days like this and wrapped himself in it as he took the papers back out of his briefcase and commenced to grade them. He managed to get through them all, and was tired enough to go right to bed when he was done, after brushing his teeth and his long, greying brown hair, where he kept some tied back and wore the rest down.
He did his usual routine of pausing at the framed picture of his late wife Tahlia, an African-American who'd been killed by a drunk driver five years and two months ago. He and Tahl were both pansexual and had an open marriage, though with their busy schedules as professors this was more in theory than in practice. He still missed Tahl with every fiber of his being, especially on days like today, when she would have responded to his stress with a foot rub and playing with his hair and making jokes and snuggling him.
He was tired of being alone, but he couldn't fathom how to change it. His prospects were limited locally in this small college town, and social networking to try to meet someone over the Internet was confusing and frightening to him.
He kissed his fingertips and pressed them to the frame, remembering Tahl. Love you, babe. He was spiritual, not religious, and believed she was probably in some kind of afterlife, and maybe they'd get another life together. Maybe they were still together in parallel universes. Those thoughts comforted him, most of the time, but tonight he was just sad. He didn't want to wait for another lifetime to find happiness again, and at fifty-nine years old it was increasingly feeling like that was all he could hope for.
Fernando hopped on the bed after he crawled in, and Qui-Gon pet the cat, soothed by the sound of Fernando's purrs. It was starting to rain, and that, too, helped lull him to sleep, glad this clusterfuck of a day was over.