When I was still working as The World’s Worst Administrative Assistant (TM) in Midtown East in Manhattan, I went to the same coffee shop everyday. Predictably, it was a Starbucks. Also predictably, because I was in Midtown East, there were dozens of other places where I could have dashed in and briskly procured what I desired: Something hot, bitter, and expensive.
I can see what that would have looked like. There I am in my dirty, ill-fitting suit. I didn’t buy it, it’s a hand-me-down, or something I picked up off of a stranger’s brownstone steps. “I totally washed it,” I say when no one asks, revealing, of course, that I haven’t done this at all. The arms of the jacket are too long and the whole thing makes me look boxy, cheap and desperate.
My hair is pulled back far too tightly and I’m not wearing enough makeup. But that’s okay because I am Just Like You (also TM), employed and harried. There I am, running into the bodega with the shortest line. The expression on my face is particularly grim. I can hear my sensible commuting Keds flapping across the floor.
When it’s my turn I bark out my order, accept the bagged coffee and napkins with a grimace and try to make up for being an inherently rude bitch by shoving a buck (or let’s be real, dropping some change) into the bucket by the register for exactly this purpose. Then out the door, boom, boom, boom, off to scowl my way through another day.
It never happened that way. The variation would have been nice. Going to a different place every day might have broken up some of the deadening monotony of my waking hours. But the problem with being anxious (aside from, you know, the many other problems, like a conversation about your own death sending you to the bathroom in a bar to splash water on your face and talk to yourself in the mirror for a little while) is that monotony is your only option. It’s an old weathered blanket you’ve held on to since childhood. It used to be soft, but now the outside of the thing is gone and all you’ve got left to press to your cheek to is the brittle, pilling cotton batting that isn’t meant to be seen.
When I was my most anxious I went to the same coffee place everyday, not because I liked what I was drinking, but because I knew what to expect there. I knew everyone who worked during every shift, I knew when it would be busy and when it would be slow. I knew what level of small talk was expected of me, and, if I didn’t feel up to that level of small-talk, I didn’t get coffee. It’s true that as a regular, I felt a certain amount of social pressure (she wrote this ridiculous thought very earnestly, but aware of its ridiculousness so please don’t tell her).
There was one charming barista who seemed to really like me. Every time I stood waiting for my simple drink, he’d wink and smile and give me instead a larger, intensely sweet, drowning in whipped cream beverage confection and say that it was “on him.” A normal person would sweetly accept and enjoy, or say, you know what, sweet coffee isn’t really my steez, but you are awesome, thank you, boo.
But I’m not normal, so I gritted my teeth took the coffee upstairs with me and felt my neck constrict with the rage of not being able to ask for what I want or to appreciate what I get. I watched the whipped cream melt and the coffee go cold. I didn’t get coffee for a week after that. When I went back, finally, a slave to the world I knew, the charming barista didn’t chat with me as usual. When he handed me my drink it was the drink I ordered. I felt terrible. Which felt good. Terrible and guilty, those were feelings I could understand.
On the last day I went to that job, I got coffee as I usually did, and, when my day was over, I walked past the coffee shop without looking at anyone there. The next morning a new section of my life started and I didn’t think, not even once, about the place and the people who had been integral to the routine that kept me afloat. I don’t know what that means.
I battle against having a routine still. I am wary of being a regular anywhere. It’s arguably creepier than how I was before. It took me a long time to commit to a hairdresser because the idea of building a relationship with someone and sustaining it doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t like going to the same coffee place too frequently now because I don’t want to disappoint or hurt the people there when I don’t order the same thing every time, or when I come in on a day or at time that is different than my usual day or time.
I know that this isn’t normal, and it’s a world I’ve created in my head where I am much more important than I am in reality, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t proud of myself when my hairdresser hugged me goodbye and wished me happy birthday the last time I was in and I didn’t immediately panic. That doesn’t mean I don’t quietly pat myself on the back every time I say, “Hey, how’s it going?” to someone whose name I don’t know, but I’ve seen often enough that not smiling at them would be akin to denying another person their humanity.
I think about things way too much. Yup. It’s true. I overthink buying coffee, and walking down stairs, and the look I saw my two friends exchange when I said something sometime. This is just how I am formed. I spent a long time trying to construct this well-organized world structured to keep me from having to experience any of the not-normal feelings or thoughts I have on a daily basis and it made me miserable.
So now I’m trying it another way. Feeling those weird feelings, thinking those strange things. It’s draining and tricky and stressful and I feel like I’m on to something. Also, not really drinking coffee so much now that my stomach is one giant ulcer definitely helps.
Kiiiiiidding, it's awful.