First of all, let’s make it clear which girl at the coffee shop we are talking about: not the one who asked me if I have Asperger’s Syndrome. That girl is a bitch. It doesn’t matter that she’s taking abnormal psychology and she just learned what Asperger’s Syndrome is, or that her tone of voice suggested she was asking in the spirit of genuine inquiry and not mockery, although her facial expression was kind of hard to read. That’s still not the kind of thing you ask a customer, especially one whose self-deprecating wit and friendly-yet-efficient approach to purchasing coffee makes your job so much more pleasant, even if some of his remarks are met with confused stares. They can’t all be gems, Girl Who Thinks I Have Asperger’s Syndrome.
I am also not referring to Girl Who Seemed To Be Flirting With Me For a Few Weeks And Then Excitedly Told Me She Was Pregnant. That girl is nice and all, but she seems kind of weird. Additionally, I do not mean Girl Who Cut Her Hair Really Short Even Though She Is Totally Not a Lesbian, Girl Who Spends Her Break Reading Travel Books About Malaysia, or Girl Who Must Be Stealing Brownies. All of them seem relatively well-integrated into coffee shop employee society, based on the fact that one time I saw Malaysia Books Girl wearing what appeared to be a pair of Short Hair Girl’s earrings, and also they all started singing together the afternoon it was raining outside and “Uptown Girl” came on. All of them, that is, but one.
I am referring, of course, to Girl With the Extremely Well-Modulated Voice. It’s uncanny at first—like getting a cup of coffee from Katie Couric, if Katie Couric were a vaguely sad 26 year-old in an Amherst Crew t-shirt who, whenever no one was in line to buy coffee, slowly undid and redid her ponytail and then sighed heavily. I am concerned that she is using her extremely well-modulated voice as a shield. During the period of time after you have placed your order but before they have given you your change, when everyone is free to discuss whatever topics they consider pertinent, the rest of the coffee shop girls are very open. Once you’ve been in there a few times, they will cheerfully tell you about how they’re meeting with a midwife later or give you an article they photocopied from Newsweek about Glenn Gould or whatever. Girl With the Extremely Well-Modulated Voice, however, will only ask you if there’s anything else she can get you today. GWtEW-MV ends way too many sentences with “today,” as if she viewed her life as one unbroken stretch of customer service, within which the present moment is only a passing inflection in a long, pleasingly-enunciated sentence.
This sort of professionalism is fine for the to-go crowd, but for the regulars—those of us who come to the coffee shop because, just for example, we cannot sit for one more minute at the desk in our apartment without cutting off our right hand and then wandering out into the street in search of someone to help us cut off our left hand—it bespeaks a certain fear of intimacy. Can I get you anything else, coffee shop girl? I am reminded of the day that Cell Phone Woman Who Never Buses Her Own Table came in with yet another baby, and all of the other employees crowded up to the counter to peer into its molded plastic baby carrier and coo. Meanwhile, GWtEW-MV stood by raspberry horns and stared into the distance. What was she remembering? Was it a Young Man Who Was Very Sensitive to Tone of Voice, laughing with her at the edge of whatever river flows through Amherst before he was sucked under the current and drowned? Was her youth apportioned by tragedy, and that was why she seemed particularly resistant to hilarious repartee from the customers? Or was she just pining for a few hours from now, when her shift would be over and she could go back to her studio apartment and watch an episode of 30 Rock on her laptop?
On Valentine’s Day, the coffee shop sold heart-shaped sugar cookies on which the staff would inscribe a Message of Your Choice, in frosting, free of charge. I ate three of them, alone, purchasing each in a separate trip to the cash register. The Girl With the Extremely Well-Modulated Voice sold me the third one. When she asked me what I wanted written in it, I said “heart cookie,” and I thought I saw the beginning of a smirk. She wrote in in pink frosting and pushed the cookie across to me. “Will there be anything else today?” she said, and for a moment it seemed we both heard the question again, echoing through a universe that could not listen.