The first thing Lauren noticed was the woman’s hands: the way the veins snaked across the back of them, bisected by rods of tendon that tightened as each finger tapped the counter. The skin was rough and a little dry, and tight wrinkles criss-crossed each knuckle. The roundness of the joints contrasted the slender, delicate bones of each finger, giving each one a skeletal appearance. Forest green polish chipped away from each cropped fingernail.
They were strong hands. They made Lauren think of her father, and of the hands that had lifted her when she fell as a child, and later held her throat as he shoved her against the back of the bathroom door.
Lauren jumped on the other side of the counter, trying to hide it by reaching for the pen behind her ear.
“Oh yeah, sorry,” she said, trying to wedge a smile between her words, “It’s just been one of those days.”
The woman smiled.
The second thing Lauren noticed was the woman’s cheekbones: high and shallow like the wall of a canyon. The way they creased when she smiled, like dry creek beds running down to her chin. Most customers offered a perfunctory wince, but the woman’s smile was genuine and warm. It made Lauren think of red wine and jersey cotton sheets.
The third thing Lauren noticed was the way the woman’s dark eyes flashed as she looked into Lauren’s, and how the effect sent a shiver down the small of Lauren’s back.
She was older than Lauren by about 20 years, she figured. She wore the standard attire of a middle-aged Missoulian on a Saturday morning: Faded heather-gray grizzlies t-shirt, army-green cargo pants, brown leather hiking boots. Her wire-frame glasses rested in the shadow of a frizzy cloud of black hair run through with contrasting streaks of gray.
Lauren turned to the hot water machine to steep the woman’s 12-ounce green tea, feeling her eyes stay on Lauren’s back.
Some customers she swore she could feel their gaze slide down to rest on her ass as she turned. Most guys, absolutely. Even some women. But this woman wasn’t the type. It was something in the way she didn’t correct her posture the first time Lauren looked at her. Something in the way she didn’t try to act too friendly or start asking the questions that were really all just versions of the same primal question: “Will you fuck me?” If Lauren got as many tips as she got come-ons from 50-year-olds with wedding rings, she could pay off her student loans.
But as it was, she was working the opening shift at Grizzly Joe’s in a coffee-stained black apron for 10 dollars an hour, serving coffee to sleepwalking college students, glassy-eyed professionals and bored husbands. The housewives crowd would come in later.
But the woman with the hands was different. She didn’t say much, but she didn’t have to. Lauren knew. And yet she seemed to see Lauren as more than just a 23-year-old ass in yoga pants.
For a moment, as hot water filled the cup in Lauren’s hand, the contrast of this single, genuine interaction to the rest of Lauren’s morning drained the color from the world around her, and her chest fluttered as the remainder of the morning reared up, insurmountable.
She turned back with a sigh and set the hot cup down on the counter in front of the woman, consciously keeping her eyes and fingers occupied with the cash register. “Is that everything?”
The woman wrapped both hands around the cup and held it up to her lips. Glancing up, Lauren saw that the woman’s eyes still rested on her, and again she felt the cool shock that, this time, continued down her hips and across the front of her thighs.
“For now,” the woman smiled, her breath stirring the steam as it rose from the paper cup.
Photo by Michael Dales