By Wena Poon
There was a certain café in Palo Alto where everyone in town went to conduct their business. Job interviews, venture capitalist pitches, and thesis discussions were held there from noon to three o'clock in the afternoon. The food was inoffensive, the service prompt, and there was parking. The menu prices were just steep enough to keep out the nearby Stanford undergraduates from loitering there too regularly, except on special occasions. Professors and their spouses often lunched there.
Other professors – the male ones – lunched there with women who were not their wives. The usual pairing for these lunch tables were as follows: one whiskery male in tweed jacket, one fawning female grad student nodding at every word. Whenever I looked up from my laptop I could see the old fuckers soaking it all up, twirling these girls around their little fingers.
Campuses were petri dishes of sex, of easy prey. I never realized that as an undergraduate, but now that I'd been out in the real world and returned, it became obvious. The combination of youth, ambition, and authority was explosive. There were now more women than men on campuses. Compared to the dating scene in the real world, you can be assured that everybody was still single. It was a great pond to fish in. If you were a professor. Alas, I was only a grad student. Worse, I was older than every other student, so my pickings were slim. I decided to make friends with my laptop and my golf clubs instead of humiliating myself at campus parties.
I had been going to the café almost every day for about six months. I was supposed to be writing my thesis, but as my laptop also contained all of my music collection, I often ended up surfing on the Internet, reading the latest postings on technology websites to the beat of Berlin and other eighties bands.
When I was in college, I was viewed as a nerd – the kind of guy women befriended only because I could fix their computers when they crashed. Fortunately, the dawn of the 21st century was kind to nerds. After working in a boring large technology company for ten years, I slowly crawled up the food chain and became the head of design for a chip company that was absorbed by a larger one. I made off like a bandit with my stock options and joined the ranks of baby millionaires floating aimlessly about Silicon Valley: too rich to need employment, too poor to actually be a celebrity.
After buying my mother a house in Virginia, to the chagrin of her estranged husband (I only got him and his wife a car, and it was a Saab, because I despised them), and making other investments through a cousin in real estate, I decided to move to an overpriced bungalow in Palo Alto and go back to school. Given the state of the world economy, I had reason to believe that my investments might go south, or that the banks would go bust. I applied to Stanford so as to prepare myself for some future respectable vocation if I had to return to the workforce when I was much older. I imagined my return as an eminence grise, helping the little bastards from Harvard Business School turn around their companies in the next financial crisis. It was either that or "settle down".
Which is why I found myself in the café every afternoon, pretending to write my thesis. My professor predicted that as a dot com millionaire I had absolutely no incentive to work on it, indeed that I had no reason to even complete the PhD program, and tolerated me solely because my association with the university was something the admissions office often boasted of in their publicity materials. He had long lost hope that I would actually contribute anything interesting to their research. I suspect he was merely jealous, as he was quite a lot older than me and, as much as he was paid now, at my age he probably was just a struggling member of the junior faculty cursing at the lawyers and bankers of his generation for having six figure salaries. I realized quickly that among such men I would find few friends.
"Hello Walter my man."
A large Iranian man with a mop of unruly, curly hair pulled up a chair and sat across from me. I removed my earphones quickly. "George." George was the owner of the café. He had fat, hairyarms and thought nothing of carting around two boxes of carrots balanced on each of his broad shoulders. It was only after watching him unload trucks that I realized running a café was a difficult job.
"Beautiful day isn't it?" said George, chugging a large glass bottle of iced tea.
"Gorgeous. How are you?"
"Good, good. Well, not so good. I'm having employee problems."
"Uh-oh. It's Trixie again, isn't it?" Trixie was the beautiful twenty-something Asian-American barista who toiled behind the counter in the mornings. She made a splendid latte. Ever since that first morning when she made one for me, with the foam expertly swirled into the shape of a heart wearing a signature squiggly tail, I had been in love. Today she wore a tight-fitting pink T-shirt ("Juicy Princess": oh, how it made my heart ache), a black bra, and denim surf shorts, as if she had just stepped off some boardwalk. The ocean was miles away, but just watching her behind the espresso machine, with Berlin playing on my laptop, I could smell the surf and hear the seagulls and feel the electricity in the air before a storm.
"Trixie, Trixie, Trixie," said George, mopping his forehead with a large handkerchief , lowering his voice so she wouldn't hear him. "The best barista in Palo Alto. But now she's mad at me and threatened to quit."
"Oh no!" Mentally I made a note to find out where she would be working next. I was already contemplating my betrayal of George. "Don't let her go."
"I won't, don't worry. I know customers like her."
"Well, what's the problem?"
"She's an animal rights activist."
George fanned himself with his handkerchief irritably. "Well, I shouldn't tell you this, Walter, but you'd understand. We have rats in the kitchen sometimes. Comes in from the fucking restaurant next door, they don't control their garbage properly. Trixie won't let me kill them."
Quickly I made a mental assessment of what I had eaten that day at the establishment. Exactly how sick does one get from rats? Did I ever get my shots? Did I ever sign up for university health services? Or should I stay on my old HMO? As my mind plotted decision trees, George continued in his soliloquy of despair.
"I'm going to run into problems with the health service, you know? She won't let me lay out poison or traps."
"That is a problem. What does she want? Sharing the kitchen with rats? Isn't she afraid of them?" Suddenly I was glad I never made a move on Trixie. She now seemed to belong to that category of illogical young women who tattooed themselves, shopped at Whole Foods, and saved rats.
"She has some kind of holistic rat trap that she uses. Herbal. Claims they slip into a deep sleep and she then puts them in a cage and sets them free in the park. Problem is, they come back."
"Of course. God, have they invented that? Sounds like Romeo and Juliet." I began to chuckle and George, not getting the reference, shot me a dirty look.
"She knows she's good, you know? And I let her get away with a lot. Too much." He mopped his forehead again. "She knows I'm complaining about her. Well, I'm off. If I don't see you when I come back, have a nice day. What are you doing in the afternoon?"
"I'm going to the driving range at the university golf club."
"You students have too good of a life."
"What about you?"
George hitched up his sagging pants and said determinedly, "To buy rat poison. Fuck her, you know? She doesn't own this business." He marched off, shaking his car keys, a man with a mission.
"Whatcha listening to?"
I removed my earphones politely. "Oh, I wouldn't tell you."
"Why not?" Trixie sat in the empty chair across from me. Even though it was a warm afternoon, a frisson came over my entire body. It was sad. I was twice her age and I was conscious that I was like every single man in here: the laptop, the earphones, the crush on the barista. When I was younger I would say that Trixie was the kind of girl that you would want to lock up and have angry sex with. But I had passed my evolutionary prime. Some White Male Bobo's, by my age, were already helping their kids apply to college. I should feel like Sean Connery, but instead I was slipping rapidly into Peter O'Toole. I felt white whiskers sprouting and bones creaking. It was one way of psyching myself in advance to fail, so that I would not be disappointed. I said with avuncular detachment, "You'd find my music very uncool."
"Why, what is it? Dave Matthews Band?"
"No, Cyndi Lauper," I said. "I was your age in the eighties."
"Hell, Cyndi Lauper's a mean bitch, man. She's cool." Trixie nursed a coffee she had made for herself. On her latte, instead of a heart, she had made an arrow-tipped spear with the same squiggly tail. "Was George complaining about me?"
I suddenly had a vision that I was going to get the full story of the rat incident from different angles, like in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. I said, "He's a good boss. He likes you a lot."
"Is he going to fire me?"
"I doubt it."
She looked off into the distance, chewing her gorgeous lower lip. She had on today a white ripped t-shirt made of gossamer cotton, absently pulled over another pink shirt underneath, and beautifully fitted khaki shorts that curved over her buttocks. Her thighs made me want to go to the gym. What does this woman eat, I wondered. How do they grow them so well these days? Like peaches ripening slowly in the sun. Why didn't I meet her in college? I went to college back East. The few women I managed to sleep with had skin that never saw the light of the sun. There were hardly any Asian women back then, and the few were buck-toothed foreigners nobody wanted to touch. And now, now you have this new generation of Asian nymphettes with glossy hair and slim thighs running around California. Kids that were born when I graduated from college, sprung from the loins of their immigrant parents, nourished by the West Coast diet and twice as tall as their forebears, fearless and ripe for the picking. Goddamn it, I had missed the boat.
Trixie's large gold hoop earrings clinked against her coffee cup as she sipped. "He is a good boss. He's like a father to me, you know? But he's so cruel." She caught herself and darted me a guilty look.
"Oh, I heard all about the rats."
She looked relieved. "Yeah, but they don't get near the food, you know? I make sure of that."
"The problem is, if you don't kill them now they might keep coming. Or multiply. Before long you're going to have a real problem on your hands. Someone might see them and the health inspectors will come." There I was, the voice of middle age. Doomed in my wisdom.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I know that my humane rat solution isn't working."
"Does it help to think of rats as just rats? Dirty, unsanitary creatures. They spread plague. Think of it as a war against them. Kill or be killed."
"They're so cute."
"Oh God, Trixie, you lost me there," I said, picking up my earphones.
"I know, you're a customer, I shouldn't be saying this. Sorry to disturb you. I got to get back to work."
"Anytime Trixie. Just don't break his heart."
"And if you leave, make sure to tell me where you go, because I get mad when my latte doesn't have squiggly tails."
"Oh, Walter, you are so funny." She darted quickly back to the counter when she saw another customer approach for a coffee. But not before I caught another glimpse of her khaki-sheathed ass. Maybe instead of golfing this afternoon I should go to the gym.
For the next week I didn't go to the café. One of my buddies from my old company was unexpectedly getting married and decided to have the wedding in Bermuda. It was his second marriage, and he decided to have a reunion of all the senior management from the old days, before the actual wedding party. Of course everybody came with their wives, but some of us managed to tear away and drive around the island and even went into the hood and played soccer with some of the locals.
However, as I had voluntarily participated in one of the time-honored rites of heterosexual bliss, I was not allowed to leave unscathed.
"So when is it your turn, Walter?" asked one of the wives at the wedding. I'd always thought she looked like a horse.
The groom refilled my drink and laughed, "You all stay away. He's the last man left standing. He has so much money, he doesn't need a wife. He's a play-ah, aren't you, Walter?"
"You're not getting any younger," said another wife. "You need something look after you when you're old."
I protested. "I'd hire one of those Filipina nurses. Don't you worry about my health."
"Yeah," said the groom, lighting a cigar. He was going down, but not without a fight. "I'd hire one of those Filipina nurses, too. Hell, I'd hire two or three. They can sponge me down anytime."
That shut up the women.
On Friday afternoon I went to the café. It was the longest time I had been away, and something was different about it. Trixie was still floating about the café, and I glimpsed George in the back directing some suppliers with cartons. Maybe the rats had gone.
"We missed ya," said Trixie, bringing me the coffee to my table instead of having me wait for her at the counter. This was an honor she reserved for special patrons. I was glad I finally made the grade. "Whatcha listening to?"
I removed one earphone. "St Elmo's Fire."
"Oh, I don't know that one." She looked disappointed.
I told her that it was a good thing that she was unacquainted with David Foster.
She said, "Why do you say that, Walter? You're kinda classy. You know, educated. I think your music is cool."
Classy and educated? Tendrils of pride at my middle-age geekdom stirred. I warmed to her. "How are the rats?"
She tossed her hair back indignantly and rolled her eyes. "Dead. All dead. I let George get his way. We're all safe now."
For some reason, I would always remember the way she said it. We're all safe now. It was infused with a strange kind of reassurance. As if all of us: the customers, the café, George, had been saved from some world pandemic that she alone had the power to control. I liked the idea.
To mark my return from Bermuda, Trixie had given me an extra-large heart with a squiggly tail and dusted the area around the heart with cinnamon. It was a work of art, rather like the decoration on a birthday cake. I took a picture of it on my camera phone. From behind the counter Trixie saw me doing that and grinned.
An hour later, I looked up from my laptop and saw Trixie sliding into the seat at a nearby table featuring one of those tweed-jacketed professors. Oh no. As if on cue, Phil Collins struck up Against All Odds on my laptop, and I turned it off immediately. I kept my earphones on to deter suspicion. Although the café was getting louder now with the usual lunch crowd, the tables were close together, so if I strained I could make out some of their conversation.
"I really love your house." Trixie said. I noticed that under the table her slippered foot, with its bright pink pedicure, was very nearly touching the carefully-ironed chinos of the old guy. He was in his fifties. I recognized him as a pretty famous economics guy who had won a Nobel Prize. He often appeared as a talking head on television. The fucking dork, I thought poisonously.
He said, "Oh, you are welcome to visit anytime, Trixie. You know how much we love having you over."
"It's so cool that Lauren is learning Chinese, too."
"Yes, although I suspect that my wife would have a hard time catching up with you. Do you speak Chinese at home with your parents?"
"No, I'm not good at it, that's why I'm enrolled in the class, too."
I scowled at my laptop and turned Phil Collins back on. I couldn't bear to watch the sexploitation that was going on right before my eyes. I surfed a technology website where people were gossiping about the release of a new patch for a program that I was helping design. On top of being a student, I consulted with several small technology companies and often tuned into bulletin boards for product reviews and complaints. I composed an email to the chief executive officer of one of the companies I worked with and reminded him that we had a conference call at three o'clock to talk about the new patch. He instantly emailed me back asking me to solve another problem. For a few moments the old thrill of work took over me.
When I next looked up, Trixie was still there fawning over the old geezer. (I had already decided he was an old geezer even though he couldn't possibly be more than ten years older than myself.) Now the Beach Boys were playing Kokomo. The professor had her in his grip. She laughed at a witty anecdote he had just conveyed. She even nodded as he told her about her Potential.
"If I were your age, I'd use my natural advantages, you know – China is a very hot market right now, and with your Chinese skills you could really do something with your life. Instead of working at a coffee shop."
You leave her alone, I thought, stabbing at my laptop viciously. She is making poetry as a barista. I bet you don't have a special squiggly heart in your latte, you pedophile.
"I'm teaching a semester abroad in Beijing, and I'd very much like you to come along. We can arrange for you to participate as a visiting student, if you like. And don't worry about the financial aspect, I'll take care of it."
"Oh Professor Johnson, wow!"
Cyndi Lauper now was bopping in my laptop, slyly declaring Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Yeah, wouldn't I know it. The chief executive officer emailed me back a long and involved email describing the exact nature of his technical problem with the latest patch. He sounded so needy, I thought. This new generation of leaders needed to have more balls. Briefly I contemplated emailing him back exactly that, but I settled down and began trying to analyze his crisis.
"I really enjoy hanging out with Lauren," Trixie was gushing the next time I tuned in to her conversation. She really was spending a long time with this man. Didn't she have to get back to work? I looked at the espresso machine and George was working at it frantically. He should come over here and stop the love fest. It wasn't me I was worried about, I told myself. Look at George. The poor man. His skills at the espresso machine were limited. Maybe I should do something after solving the crisis in the email. For George's sake. But what? I felt helpless and retreated into The Eurythmics.
The professor had his face very close to Trixie's. He said with an air of authority which young women must find very seductive, young women who have that father figure thing going. "Lauren says such great things about you. You know, we are empty nesters. The house is empty on most evenings. Lauren is so bored, she has classes every evening. Every Tuesdays and Thursdays is Chinese, and then she has feng shui, knitting, and tae bo. But most Friday nights I'm all alone with a volume of Hardy."
It was Friday that day. I rolled my eyes. Your ability to detect your own lameness must be inversely proportional to the number of prizes you get.
"Harding?" asked Trixie doubtfully.
He jumped in eagerly, "No, Hardy. Thomas Hardy. The great British novelist – "
She said she had never heard of him. Mentally I cheered and raised an imaginary score card for Trixie. But the old fart wouldn't let up. He began launching into a lecture about how great Thomas Hardy was and how she should absolutely read his novels, starting with Jude the Obscure. He sounded like a fucking Wikipedia entry. Now he's a Lit professor? Wasn't he an Ec professor? Well, he can take my Invisible Hand and suck on it.
"Does Lauren like Thomas Harding?" asked Trixie innocently.
The professor stopped short. He said delicately, "Oh, she prefers to…exercise."
Trixie said happily, "Lauren does a lot of gym! She keeps very fit. She has a great body."
The professor hid a smile in his coffee cup. "For her age."
My cellphone rang, shattering this drama I was voraciously consuming. I picked up. "Walter Ellis speaking." It was the frantic Chief Executive Moron, calling in advance of our appointed time, asking if I had read his email. I assured him that I had, and that the problem could very easily be solved by putting one of his young engineers on the phone with me (i.e. not him) and I would take them through the process. He rattled on. Could I please accompany him to the investor meeting on Monday morning? And could I meet at his house on Sunday afternoon to hear him rehearse his pitch? Sunday? Well, I thought humorlessly. It wasn't as if I had a date. I might as well become a celibate monk of IT. Yes, yes, I told him. He then went on to describe a crisis of self-confidence. I considered asking him to see a psychotherapist.
Something had happened at the next table. Trixie got up, gave the professor a peck on the cheek, and fled back to the espresso machine as more customers lined up. George threw up his hands at her. She said something cheerful to him and went back to work, taking orders, shutting the refrigerator door with her butt and refilling the milk at the same time. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the professor stand by the sunlit entrance of the café, staring at her, then quickly turn and walk down the street.
I was still on the phone. In fact, I was on the phone and at the laptop for another ninety minutes, working remotely with the small company on their stupid patch to the loud blaring of Bow Wow Wow, which made it more bearable. When I finally got off, my neck had become stiff with tension and I leaned back in the uncomfortable café chair and groaned.
"Walter my man," said George, pulling up a chair. Most of the lunch crowd had dispersed. "You're working hard."
"Yes, I stupidly agreed to do something I shouldn't have."
George sighed and looked over at the counter where Trixie was cleaning up. "Trixie's quitting."
"Oh no!" The inevitable had happened. For a moment I shared George's pain, then I asked, full of righteous indignation, "Where is she going? Is she going to Beijing with that fucking professor who was talking to her just now?"
"Johnson? No, man." George tossed his large head back and laughed lustily, slapping his thigh. "She's not going to Beijing with Johnson. She's heading out to Santa Monica, man. With Johnson's wife."
I stared at him uncomprehendingly. Visions of a chick holiday, sponsored by a bored, wealthy spouse.
George stopped laughing and leaned forward. "Listen, I'm telling you this because I know she wouldn't mind. She likes you. Trixie just told Johnson that she's having an affair with his wife, Lauren. They met in some Chinese class. Lauren's divorcing her husband for Trixie. Trixie and Lauren are moving to Santa Monica together."
I finally let the arrow, suspended so delicately and for so long on the bow, pierce deep within me. I started laughing helplessly. "Oh, fuck."
"Oh fuck is right, man. I'm losing my best employee."
"Serves that old fucker right."
"Seriously. Did you see his face when he walked out of here?"
Trixie called George from behind the counter. She pointed imperially on the floor.
"Gotta go. She must have found another dead rat. She won't touch them. Says it's my responsibility to remove them now that I've insisted on killing them. Doesn't want to get any poison on her hands."
I let him go. Then, I shut my laptop, rolled up my earphones and looked out at the sunshine and the people milling about in the street. Ridiculously, out of nowhere at all, a new band that I had never heard of began to play.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 2 Apr 2009