“Dirty Chai” fiction by Karen Hugdahl Meyer

Dirty Chai

fiction by Karen Hugdahl Meyer


The smell of coffee is thick and the whirring sound of metal blades grinding beans lends an industrial feel to this old-style European café that sits a few blocks from the university where Griffin works in Vancouver. The university campus sits on the edge of a bluff falling into the Georgia Straight. Below is a nude beach where even in the winter, fat men with pasty white skin build temporary shelters out of old plastic sheets and beach logs so they can lie naked in a cold October wind.

While standing at the counter, Griffin looks up to the familiar wooden sign that hangs by a metal chain from the ceiling. This is one of the constants in his life, reading this sign. Today, the words in chalk say, “All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.” Griffin is comforted by the fact that someone has chosen this passage to share. He feels a connection with everyone in the café and is momentarily released from his singular existence. Soon, he will read the horoscope that sits cut out on the counter, placed there by the owner, Herb.

Griffin is on a self-imposed break from writing his grant proposal. It feels good to be out from his stuffy office and with people again, even if he doesn’t plan on talking to anyone. He notices Chelsea immediately from behind—the childhood friend of his daughter, Amy. Her legs are long inside a pair of tight skinny jeans rolled at the cuff with tanned toes poking out from flip flops. He knows the terms skinny jeans and flip-flops because Amy informed her poor old professor dad that such rubber footwear are no longer called “thongs” and that if he called them that, his students would think he was referring to their skimpy underwear.

Chelsea wears a loose blouse tight at the waist with a thick brown woven leather belt. Not that he goes around noticing such details, but it’s what lies underneath that bothers him. He remembers that her hips are more square than round. He tries not to imagine her full breasts under that blouse, edges that thought away. Her thick dark hair has grown into shiny loose curls down her back and he smells her shampoo, something like the fresh bottled scent of innocence and adoration with blueberries thrown in.

It’s her turn to order.

“I’ll have a Dirty Chai,” she says, resting both hands on the counter and leaning into it, flipping her flip flops with her toes making a clack sound. And it’s the way she says the word “dirty”, as though she has other things in mind than Indian tea with a shot of espresso. And then she lets out a girlish giggle that completely releases her from any responsibility for what response her actions might arouse.

He wasn’t supposed to see her there. Chelsea. A promising violinist in the youth orchestra. An only child of immigrant parents determined to give her a better life than the one they left behind in Russia. This fourteen year-old girl, part of their family. He appeals to the well-trod pathway of logic, that superhighway of his mind, but is pulled back into that moment.

The girls had just come in from swimming in the pool and he had gone upstairs to find something. The door to his daughter’s room was open. Chelsea was standing there wearing nothing at all, looking at herself in his daughter’s full-length mirror. He hadn’t meant to see her, but he did, and in that one rounded moment he knew her body, all curves and softness with that dark patch between her legs against pale skin.

She was not quite a woman. In years, she was little more than a child and held onto a certain plumpness of youth more akin to ripe fruit. Her body was her own to explore with none of the demands that would come later from motherhood. Maybe the floorboards creaked or maybe she sensed his presence. But when she saw him standing there, all she did was smile and turn her hip slightly.  He couldn’t help but think there was coyness in her smile. Yes, she was definitely coy, playful even?

Blink hard, push away.

Griffin swallows and is left with a dry mouth. He knows that he will need to say something, answer questions he would rather not about Amy or himself for that matter. His eyes dart to the door. He considers walking back to the library where he has a table and a stack of books. He has deadlines, a toppling stack of mid-term papers to mark. It’s all he can do to keep going, which is why he needs a coffee at ten in the morning, juggling his home life with students handing in mediocre work, most of them struggling with homesickness and life choices made away from the support of family. His life at the university exists almost as a separate country. He feels safe immersed in this alternative campus culture with a Starbucks of its own and the fashionable young bodies, and their over-caffeinated, provocative, probing young minds. It’s saved him, this place.

Each day, walking down the hallway of the Arts building, new posters and signs of protest for some cause or another are pinned to the message boards. The most recent was advising students to take part in “Buy Nothing Day” as an alternative to the consumer-driven Black Friday. There was “Wear Purple Day” to take a stand for violence against gay people. Always there are discussions erupting in his classes, in hallways. There are speakers on every subject, Sex and Aids awareness campaigns. And this is good. It is as it should be, but sometimes this unstoppable striving energy derails him.

“Mr. Wood?” She is looking up from reading the menu board when she turns and notices him. He was pretending to read the menu from his place in line.

Griffin dreads these kinds of false beginnings.

“Chelsea? How are you?” Two upward inflections are hard to carry off convincingly.

“Good. Just grabbing a coffee.” Her arm reaches out to the young man beside her. Griffin had assumed she was alone. There is a falling sensation in his chest. This young man is tall, dark-haired, lean and muscular in snug jeans and a tight fitting t-shirt with the words “GRISWALD FAMILY VACATION…Wallyworld or Bust!” and a faded graphic of a loaded family station wagon.

“This is Liam.”

They say hello. He wishes now that he wore the new button-down shirt his wife said made him look athletic. He becomes aware of his thinning patch of hair, the slight bulge above his belt, fraying edges on the cuffs of his pants.

“This is Amy’s dad,” Chelsea says, pausing slightly.

Liam may have been part of the gang of kids assembled at their family home the week after the accident, each of them a slightly different version of the next. Griffin scans the boy’s face, but that would have been two years ago and kids change so much.

“We all graduated together.” Liam nods, smiles, shoves his hands into slits with just the fingers reaching into the pockets. His hands are large and thick, more like the hands of a man. Working hands. Maybe he’s in construction.

Amy didn’t attend the graduation ceremony. Griffin wants to correct this young man, but doesn’t. At that point, it was undecided whether she would ever be able to walk again. They boarded their horse out to a neighbour who needed a companion horse, wanting no reminders of that terrible day when he had reared up and backwards—almost unheard of—and fell onto Amy, completely crushing her pelvis and injuring her spinal cord.

The barista is waiting for Griffin, tapping her fingernails, smiling through a thin line of teeth.

“Oh, sorry. I’ll have a cappuccino.”

“Are you still playing the violin?” he asks, grasping for some thread of a conversation.

“Sure. But I’m more interested in playing fiddle now. I’m in an all female blue-grass band, Gyspsy Wheat.

He smiles, appreciating how lovely she is. He should be able to do that, at least.

“It’s hard to believe … you’ve graduated,” he says, leaning on the counter, waiting for his coffee.

“I know, it’s crazy,” she laughs, looks to her boyfriend. She is polite, respectful. She moves her hand through her long hair, holds her earring between the fingers of her left hand. “My parents have already decided what to do with my room.”

“Are you going away somewhere?”

“I’m leaving for France next month. I’m au pairing for a year in this small town –  Boulogne? It’s on the English Channel, and then I’ll decide.” Griffin sees that she squeezes her boyfriend’s hand, places her other hand on his, a nervous gesture.

Such a young life, of course she would have plans to travel and work abroad. That’s what a person does when they are twenty. He feels the sting of knowing that Amy will likely never do that. In fact, they’ve just hired a part-time nurse to give them a break which will cost them their vacation fund. The nurse, Edna, is bossy, fat, and when she walks even a short distance the polyester pants she wears get stuck up her ass and she is constantly sticking her fingers up there when she thinks they don’t notice and pulling them down.

He is careful to look Chelsea in the eye and not down at her necklace where a cluster of glass beads dangles carelessly between her breasts. But he can see that when she laughs, the necklace moves slightly, rests on one side and then the other when she shifts her feet.

“What is Amy up to?”

Fine. She’s asked. Of course, she would. He can’t very well tell her that Amy is struggling to get out of bed each morning and that, since the accident, he and Shirley are sleeping in separate rooms. He doesn’t tell her that his only daughter is attending a daycare for adults who can’t cope with the real world.

“Oh, she’s managing.” He was going to add that, she could really use a friend … you ought to come by, but he doesn’t. For a moment, Griffin feels awkward for Amy and this friendship, the deep hurt that this loss must have caused her, on top of everything else.

The three of them are standing, holding coffees. It doesn’t make sense for them to be there any longer and Griffin is vaguely aware of the greedy tendency in himself to want more, no matter what. And he is reluctant to leave, gripping this moment, unsure of what to do next.

Liam is scanning the café. He excuses himself, walks to a nearby table and sits down. As a parting consolation, Chelsea laughs and says that every time she drives by their house, she thinks of how she felt like part of the family and that she remembers those big chocolate ginger cookies he used to make.

“You remember those?” he says, feeling foolish for asking.

“Those were the best.”

He smiles at that, puffs his chest a little. She likes his cookies. At least there’s that.

Liam is looking up.

“I’d better go,” she says.

“Sure, sure. Nice seeing you.”

“You too.” She pauses for just a moment. “Say hi to Amy?”

“I will.”

He is relieved to see that the two seats at the front are open, so he walks to the window, sits on a stool and scans the notices pinned to the board. This usually staves off whatever loneliness he might be dragging around, gives him a feeling of connectedness and place in the community.

He silently berates himself for all of the questions he didn’t ask her. Normal, every day questions that any responsible participant in a conversation would think to ask like what is she studying or how are her parents doing, things that should come naturally and easily to a man of his education and life experience.  And then, for the first time, he wonders what she has carried from that humiliating moment when the father of her best friend saw her naked, the subtle boundaries that were violated that day. How has this affected her? He doesn’t allow himself to follow the tangent of a thought that might take him into the inappropriate realm of guessing if she ever dreamed of him, fantasized about him standing there. That’s a possibility he never thought of before. He is aware of a conflicting sensation in his body of being in overdrive with the brakes on, as though there is something important he needs to do or say, but doesn’t. He sits and finishes his coffee which is now lukewarm.

After ten minutes or so, he gets up to go and turns to look one last time. He allows himself this. He expects them to be gone, but they are still there. Liam is talking, reclined in his chair, arms clasped casually behind his head. What could he possibly be saying of any importance? He’s only twenty for god’s sake. Griffin chastises himself for jealousy towards a boy barely out of adolescence. Chelsea is leaning into him, her body comfortable and relaxed. She is smiling, admiring, laughing at the right parts, engaged and  listening as only a young women lavishing attention on her man can be, placing so much trust where it hasn’t been tested. He thinks of his own wife and what a different person she was when they met. She was one of his students, so eager and full of longing and promise, so wanting to please. Where does that go?

He opens the door and, as he does, she looks up ever so briefly and catches his eye with a simple glance which means, of course, that she was watching him too. But people do that in cafés, he reasons to himself, chastising his foolish thoughts of actually mattering to this young, beautiful girl. He reddens, burns in the places he shouldn’t. They exchange a brief smile and Griffin leaves. He walks down the sidewalk towards the library where he will spend the next few hours immersed in books and searching the internet. Some days go by without being seen by one single person, really seen. But not today, he tells himself. No, today was different.

With thoughts such as these ambling in his head, he crosses the street, aware that he is jaywalking. On the other side, he notices a balding man of about seventy wearing a green ski jacket. He looks of Nordic decent, healthy, tan perhaps from a recent trip to the tropics. The man looks up and smiles at Griffin, the kind of smile reserved for people of the same clan or club or community group as if to say: Hey, you’re like me. And with this subtle gesture, Griffin is taken aback. He looks behind him to see that this man is, in fact, looking at him and not at somebody else, somebody older. Nobody is behind him. This unsettles Griffin, bothers him so much that his encounter at the coffee shop is nudged far into the background

It is starting to rain. There is that smell of rain hitting cement. The forecast has called for one week of continuous rain which will likely go on all month, all winter. He’s not sure how humans are meant to deal with such a heavy burden of weather and he thinks of the feelings that  will accompany all of that rain—the non-stop pitter-patter on rooftops, window shields in cars with the back and forth motion of the wipers, the thin canvas of umbrellas, the hood of his waterproof shell, and the wetness seeping into his shoes—and how by the end of all that rain, his very soul will feel soggy. All of the people in this city will feel it too and yet this feeling will go unexpressed, will lay dormant like something weak and dying and yet there is a resilience too, an endurance that builds in all Vancouverites. If there were an Olympic sport for rain, we’d win. We’d own that god damn podium, although the podium floor might be soggy and rotting. Griffin walks up the steps to the library, glad at least that he still has his sense of humour. That’s what his wife loves most about him, his sense of humour. He’s a funny guy. And he can still make her laugh, despite everything that’s happened. Griffin comforts himself with this thought. He enters the library, wonders if this new frivolity of mood is brought on by the cappuccino, but disregards this notion. Instead, he attributes it to a newly emerging upbeat sort of outlook on life, a new beginning even.

That afternoon, Griffin will finish the grant proposal with flair and originality. He will send it off to the powers that be and eventually receive funding enough to take his wife on a six-month sabbatical to Italy where they will drink espresso and eat far too much pasta with red wine and make love, yes, they will make slow, tender, meaningful love in a small apartment made from quarried local rock perched high on the cliffs of Cinque Terre and, together, they will laugh deep into the night about how they can still have fun. They’ve still got it going on. And as he is lying on the thin layer of sheets, feeling an evening breeze blow in from the open window, he will think to himself that maybe this is what he’s been yearning for all along, maybe this is that quiet ache, that whispering voice that won’t go away To go back to a time when there was no plan, no guarantees and the day could take you anywhere.