Unless I’ve done it my whole life, I don’t consider even years-long habits to be real rituals, and therefore I don’t consider any of my years-long habits to be rituals. 

Your drink’s ready. Thanks. I love your outfits, by the way. Thanks! I was about to say, that’s a really good tie-dye you’re wearing. Thanks. Where do you work? I’m at the Asian Arts Initiative. That’s what I thought. Everyone there is so cool. Aw! Thanks! I was thinking of taking the dance classes there. The classes are really great. You’d like it a lot. What else is going on there right now? Well (blather blather). I’m Anne, by the way. Hi, I’m Allie.

I had this conversation with a barista today. It may seem pretty typical, but was actually kind of special, and I am obviously going to explain why.

I’ve never thought I was much for rituals because I’ve believed that quitting something even after years of habitude, renders a ritual completely null and void. I am at a point where I might have to admit smoking is a ritual. I’m on day 8 of having quit smoking once again, even though I’d quit for ten years before resuming this year. And I mean, I say “day 8” but I cheated a couple nights ago with one cig. Is smoking addiction like booze where you reset the clock every time you fuck up? It was just half a cigarette, you guys. And…I was extremely drunk. Oh, also, I’m drinking a little more than usual but that’s never been a habit I’ve pretended I’d ever quit; even if I take months-long breaks from it.

My point is that unless I’ve literally done it consistently my whole life, I don’t consider even years-long habits to be real rituals, and therefore I don’t consider any of my years-long habits to be rituals. 

When I picture rituals, I think of baseball players who have to touch themselves a specific way before going at bat or pitching. I picture Rafael Nadal jiggling his testicles before throwing a serve. I think of singers warming up their vocals backstage, with almost religious focus. I get shivers just thinking about some of those warmups.

These contemplations of ritual are a grand digression from the point of small talk with a barista, but I’m convinced there’s a connection I will make by the end of the post.

Here’s the thing: talking to the baristas at this particular coffee shop always feels like cheating. I do not know how else to put this, but it’s like they all think we’re about to cheat when they talk to me. And so you don’t confuse what I mean by cheating, I mean cheating like “illicit affair.” I mean cheating  like the shit you see on the show Cheaters.

Let me try to unbraid the ritualistic nature of getting coffee, further, before explaining barista innuendo. So as I was saying, I don’t consider myself much for rituals, but I do have specific coffee-drinking habits. Namely, that for years and years, I would have a cup of long espresso prepared by my husband in the morning. I still do, occasionally, have my precious cup of espresso in the morning, topped with foamy crema. During the shut-down, however, I found myself coming to the empty Asian Arts building a lot, and getting a mid-morning booster coffee from the shop across the street became a quasi-ritual. That has now become a real habit of hitting up the coffee shop every day that I am in the building. This means I engage with a clerk at the shop at least three times a week. 

Though the co-owner of the shop was the only barista I engaged with during the pandemic, a slew of new staffers came through the store as we all transitioned out of the shutdown, and as we started to re-engage under the auspices of normal customer service, I found myself being a little more chatty with each transaction. Hey! How’s it going? It’s so hot isn’t it? The air-conditioning in here is a godsend.

But a funny thing kept happening. Something like this conversation would ensue:

Anne: You have anything fun planned for the weekend? Clerk: Nothing special. Actually, my girlfriend and I will probably just catch up on some TV. I see my girlfriend on the weekends because we hardly get to see each other during the week.

Here’s another conversation:

Anne: Do you live far from here? Clerk: Kind of, yeah. I just moved to (neighborhood) because my girlfriend and I just broke up. Anne: Oh, I’m sorry. Clerk: No, it’s probably for the best. I’m sort of learning a lot by living alone, though of course I want people to come over if they want. Have you ever been to (neighborhood)? Anne: I haven’t, but maybe I’ll make an excursion out there with my toddler one of these weekends.

And another one:

Clerk: (mumbles through a mask while looking me dead in the eyes) Anne: What? Clerk: (mumbles) Anne: I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. Clerk: It’s impossible to hear anything with masks on, sorry. But we could just stare at each other. Anne: You’re never going to repeat what you were trying to say, are you. Clerk: Huh? Now I can’t hear you. *laughter*

It’s not that these conversations are illicit. It’s more like, we have to say things to back off what might be interpreted as innuendo.

For example, the classic “girlfriend” mention-block. You could’ve said you had no special plans for your weekend, and nothing would change in my nonexistent feelings for you, but I understand that saying “I’m doing nothing” can easily be interpreted as an invitation, whereas invoking a partner in nothing-doing might shut down any prospect of me asking you to join me in “something-doing.” I have an old story I used to love to tell, about when I’d habitually run into Tim Biskup, who was so bad at girlfriend mention-block that I actually found it offensive. Like, no Tim, there’s not an iota of a chance I am hitting on you but please, keep abruptly ending the pithy conversation we were having to look for your gal. [You had to have known us circa Giant Robot to understand the humor in this but just take my word for it.]

I was once asked by Sassy magazine a decade or so ago, if I had any unusual dating advice. I offered simply that no one should assume “I’m taken” will suffice as a rebuttal to a come-on by a man, because men are idiots and will not be discouraged by the presence of a partner. In college, my roommate, her then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I went to a party where a drunk asshole kept trying to get it on with her. When she said “I’m here with somebody,” he replied flatly: well you’re not leaving with him. I laughed so hard when I heard this that he actually left her alone to get away from my cackling ridicule. I guess my point here is that if you are on my mind, I promise, you can talk about your person till you’re blue in the face, and it won’t make a difference. I would honor your boundaries, but would still think about you. My other point is that the most effective method of rejecting unwanted advances is to have me at your side laughing in ridicule.

So when Allie and I had this professional-platonic conversation about what’s happening at AAI, and our mutual respect for each others’ outfits, I did indeed go through a maelstrom of small musings: am I less threatening to her because we’re both women? Isn’t it presumptuous of me to believe a woman won’t read innuendo out of my vocal or body language? Isn’t it presumptuous to assume Allie is a woman? Should I have read anything into her compliments? I wonder if she’ll come to the show and if we’ll become friends.

Relationships are rituals I uphold with absolute sanctity. Oh wow. There. I found a ritual and a connection to main point.