The woman two spots in front of me in line at the Seattle-mermaid airport coffee shop moved slowly, deliberately. Her hand searched the air beside her, eventually finding a wallet in her left pocket. She produced the object and considered it as though it she were seeing it for the first time, and everyone else in the coffee shop was looking at it too. I knew I was. I was, in addition, considering her sculpted porcelein cheekbones, deep liquid eyes, shining cherry-wood hair pulled back over an expensive-looking fitted ski jacket. She did not appear to be American. This fact painted her behavior with double-edged undertones of awkwardness and intrigue.
“How do you make the juniper latte? Do you use syrup?” The barista grunted.
The woman paused, evidently not to thoroughly rethink the next words issued by her mouth. “But junipers have berries, don’t they?” I did not hear the barista’s response, perhaps because he and nobody within earshot of the woman two spots in front of me had one. They did indeed—hard, dry blue-grey pellets that split yellow and smelled of either Christmas or a clean bathroom. Like most approximately fruit-shaped objects available for picking from suburban neighborhood trees, they did not make for pleasant eating.
The woman spoke with the authority of deeply considered experience but had a young face, clear and bright and seemingly without a trace of makeup. “Can I get a taste of the latte? To see whether I would like to buy one?” The barista pulled down a cup and began to mix.
It was almost my turn to order. The cashier was grinning widely at something that the woman directly in front of me, who was not ordering a juniper latte despite not having first tasted it to see whether she would like to buy one, had just said. “…My dad is Nepali, but my mom is Chr—” Christian? I could not make out her mumbled words.
“Wow,” the cashier said. “Imagine that connection!” I unfortunately could not imagine that connection. The woman smiled shyly and stepped down to wait for her drink.
I moved toward the cashier’s now-radiant smile, feeling my own infected by his happiness at whatever had just transpired regarding Nepalese fathers and the woman’s potentially Christian name. “Can I have a hot chocolate, please?”
“Sure thing. Would you like whipped cream?”
“Is it extra money?” I winced, taking one ski jump down the juniper-lined slippery slope of complex interactions at the coffee counter.
“Okay, then.” Done deal. Simple. Fin.
“And what’s your name?”
Until the age of sixteen, this question had been innocuous enough. Like the favorite color blue, the Irish-American ethnicity, and summer holidays at Wisconsin Dells, my name was ubiquitous, standard, and boring in the soycorn-farm suburb where I had grown up. “What’s your name?” “Kelley.” Maybe it was processed; maybe, forgotten. No matter. Questions were not asked. Proceed to conversation.
Then when I was sixteen, at the urging of a mother who had promised the family priest on her wedding day that her children would be raised Catholic, I underwent the sacrament of Confirmation despite my serious doubts about the whole God business once puberty had begun to myelinate my cortical circuitry with the dual gifts of critical thinking and the overwhelming desire not to use it because I already knew everything. After the ceremony, the members of my Sunday school class lined up to receive the Eucharist from one of the new priests, whom I particularly liked because he was young and relatable and gave short homilies.
“Kelley,” I had mumbled nervously when it was my turn, staring at the off-grey carpeted floor of our hip-and-modern young Catholic church. The hormones burning a personality into my cerebral cortex had not yet torched my shyness.
“Helen, the body of Christ.” I accepted the wafer even though I was not Helen and it was therefore not mine. It was the blessed body of Christ, and once conferred, it had to be taken by someone. Even if off the dirty carpet of the church floor, the Sunday school nuns had solemnly informed our classroom of wide-eyed Catholics-to-be.
That was the day that Kelley the girl died and Helen the adult was born. Since then, nine of ten times my name has been spoken—on the phone with the bank, at the reception of the doctor’s office, at Legendary Mermaid Coffee or any other corporate entity pretending to care about me and my life—the interlocutor has furrowed her brow, looked at me like I had just asked her to estimate the air velocity of an unladen swallow, and said, “Helen?” It was a curse from God, I decided, because after I had told my mom about what had happened at my Confirmation that day we had laughed at the priest’s mistake behind his back.
KELLY, the cashier wrote across the very small paper cup. A Christmas miracle! Perhaps this beaming young man at the caffeinated-siren-from-Washington counter had finally broken God’s curse.
The woman two spots in front of me had been joined by a tall blonde man with an Oxbridge accent. “The prices here are off the charts,” he informed her.
“I am getting a taste of the juniper latte so that I can decide whether I want one. Would you like to taste it?” she replied. How nice that a non-order with which the woman was holding up the single barista of a crowded airport coffee shop might now be considered slowly by more than one person.
“I just had water,” proclaimed her gentleman friend. The barista handed them a small green cup, and the woman tasted it with a long sip. She thought for a moment and leaned toward the barista.
“Thank you for the taste of the juniper latte. Do you make eggnog?” Evidently the Mythical-Mermaid-from-Seattle Corp. would have profited from the inclusion of real juniper berries in its isolated aromatic chemical drink. The barista shook his head. I stood stonily next to them and waited with a lacquered veneer of sterling patience for my hot chocolate. Adding whipped cream would not raise the sale cost of hydrating a thirty-five-cent packet of chocolate sugar powder, I was informed. I did not trust this false whipped product, just as I did not trust the persnickety juniper woman two spots in front of me. Both were lovely. I opted in.
“Attention, passengers,” shouted a prerecorded male voice through JFK Terminal 8 Gates 1-10. “If any unknown person attempts to give you any item to transport on your flight, do not take it.” Especially not a berry-less toxic juniper latte. For shame.
“Hot chocolate with whipped cream,” the barista called. The curse had not been broken. At least “hot chocolate with whipped cream” exhibited a whimsical flair lacking in “Helen.”
“Smoking is not allowed in the terminal,” the helpful male voice reminded us.