by Veronica Friend

“I was hoping you’d come in today,” she said as she sat across from me.

Several weeks earlier, I had finally made the trek to the new café on Cole. The hype had died down a bit, but even late in the morning this place hummed with life and I hit a small line. When I reached the front I ordered a mocha. That was my go-to when I tried a new spot—my theory was, if the espresso and chocolate could be trusted, so could everything else. It hadn’t failed me yet.

I took my number and found a table near the bar. She was alone at the espresso machine, dutifully filling orders for a line that never seemed to shrink. I watched her pour steamed milk into a cup, pump a swirl of whipped cream on top, and set it on the bar. She glanced up, caught my eye, and smiled. Not the it’s-my-job-to-make-you-feel-welcome smile of a retail worker. An honest smile that lit up her whole face.

The cup arrived at my table. One cautious sip later I realized I had found my new favorite café.

I returned often, always hoping to find her winged liner and silver hoops, always slightly disappointed by another barista’s iteration of her masterpiece. She learned my name and I learned her schedule and I quipped that I’d need to cut back, my head and my wallet were starting to hurt. She responded by adding to my drink. Extra whip. Caramel drizzle. Hazelnut syrup. “On the house,” she’d say.

This time, instead of whipped cream, the cup that came to my table had a heap of foam. I started to tell the server it wasn’t mine until I noticed the rose drawn into it and realized she herself was the server. I wanted to drink it, but it would have been a felony to ruin that art.

“I only get ten minutes,” she sighed, gently pushing the cup closer to me. “Don’t make me feel like I’m wasting it.”

I raised the cup to my lips. No cocoa, just strong espresso and thick, creamy sweetness. Heavy foam dissipated on my tongue. Beautiful, but definitely not a mocha.

“Cuban latte,” she chirped. “It’s not on the menu. Hope you can keep a secret.”

I didn’t tell my friends about her. Not when we started hanging out, not when they noticed my sudden affinity for mascara and skirts (girl, who you tryna impress?), not when she invited me back to her place for coffee and bad movies. As the kettle whistled, summoning her to the kitchen, I flipped through her art portfolio. A house atop a cliff, waves crashing against the rocky shore. Nymphs at play in a river surrounded by wildflowers. Children racing bicycles down a city street.

A woman in a café, her deep brown skin gleaming in the light. Afro short but defined, steaming cup in hand, a book resting on the table. Her signature izzy a. scrawled onto its spine.

My head throbbed. With art like this she was destined for more than the barista life. I started to leave, but she claimed to have just the cure for my pain: genuine Seattle dark roast. Hot water and grounds, nothing else. I objected, citing the smoke and bitterness of black coffee; she insisted that a proper brew with quality beans wouldn’t taste like that.

Five minutes later she handed me a mug filled nearly to the brim with steaming, fragrant liquid. I drank until it got lukewarm, and the next thing I knew her lips were on mine. Dark chocolate on her tongue, marshmallow fingers and sticky caramel sweat, blueberry-tinted whispers. I basked in the pop-pop-whoosh of caffeine hitting my brain.

Veronica Friend is an afro/latina writer from the South End of Seattle. She earned her BA in English Literature from the University of San Francisco, where she currently lives.