A. C. Peterson

"It's beautiful," she told me, "how stupid most people are."

Danielle's favorite hobby, she said, was people watching. She slid a Grande Mocha across the table with my name misspelled in wax pencil on the edge. (It wasn't what I wanted. She never bothered to ask.)

Her favorite hobby, I found, was actually mocking everyone who happened to walk by.

"How can she bear to leave the house with an ass that fat?" Danielle said as she readjusted her bony bird-like rear in the industrially fashionable chair.

The woman with the fat ass chuckled at an unheard barista's joke. The warm, glowing laughter filled the hipster-lined walls of the tiny shop as if with a burst of sunlight. The woman's smile made my heart ache to know her, glad to be alive.

Danielle's face reacted with a shocked scowl.
"You'd think she'd be considerate enough to shut the hell up with her cow braying," Danielle added far too loudly to be meant for me.
I slunk in my chair. "Mooing."
Danielle glared at me, "What was that?"
"It's called mooing. Donkeys bray."
"Whatever the hell. I'm not a cow expert."

She stirred her green straw, rattling the ice of her medium-brown liquid breakfast. Her attention drifted to the other side of the cafe glass, where an old woman with a shopping cart slowly made her way down the sidewalk.

"Do me a favor. Kill me if I ever look that pathetically miserable. Can you even imagine being that old?"

I could. I could imagine being that old Chinese woman--worrying about your children, your grandchildren. Struggling with the language, with protecting your traditions in a city that at once can seem so Chinese and seem so foreign. The slow aches and pains that come as you age. The desire to be independent and not have your children, the children you birthed, raised and potty trained, talk at you like you were feeble. The sense of control, of pride, of still being able to walk from the BART to Chinatown, buy the bread and shrimp and familiar vegetables you had always put on the table and to walk back to BART again to return home. I imagined there was sadness, of losing a husband, your friends, your homeland, and joy, of being able to guide the younger generations, to prove to your family you were still the matriarch.

I awoke from my daze as she said, "I wish everyone would just learn English already."

She was my mentor.

"You could learn a lot from Danielle," my new boss told me as he left me defenseless in her cubicle, her ice blue eyes scanning me from the top of my flat, lifeless hair to the bottom of my sensible, knockoff shoes. She smiled as she took the "Happy to Help Mentor Program" card, perkily pinning it up on her wall between a fabric swatch and a carefully dried sprig of lavender.

"You don't look Swedish," was the first thing she said to me.
"Actually, it's an adopted-"
"Such a boring name, really. I'd change it if I were you. What's your boyfriend's name? You do have a boyfriend don't you? Or are you gay? You have shoes like a lesbian, but you don't have that cute little lesbian haircut."

I patted down my hair which, to be fair, did need a haircut, but not a lesbian haircut, whatever that was. And stared at my shoes. Were my shoes keeping me from true love? Did my eyes say, "Yes" while my shoes were saying, "Don't even bother" to would-be suitors? Yes. She was good at marketing. I could tell. I could learn a lot from her.

And then she took me to Starbucks.

"Remember, we don't sell cheap, shitty clothes. We sell hope to hags. I mean, no one decent would ever shop there, right? It's not like anyone with taste would ever buy a bag there, you know? But still we sell them, right?" She clutched her purse as she spoke, running her French manicured nail along the embossed "Kate Spade" on the red leather.

"Like her," Danielle pointed to a middle-aged woman on the other side of the coffee shop. "Her clothes are cheap. Her shoes are crap. Her haircut is pure Supercuts."

I tucked my hair behind my ears in the hope of covering up my $11 trim job.

"She doesn't like herself. She couldn't leave the house like that if she did. But she thinks that something magically could make her life beautiful. So we tell her, subtly, that her life is a wreck without a Kitchenaid mixer. And with the sale we're having, she'd be throwing money away if she weren't buying it right now. Now, she's not smart. You can tell. She can't even manage makeup right. So she won't know the difference between the Kitchenaid we sell, in one boring color, with an underpowered motor, and the one in Martha Stewart Living. She just knows she has to have one. Or she will after you're done with her, right?"

Danielle's laugh is just short of a cackle. There's absolutely nothing funny in what she's said, but she faked a laugh, as if to say, "I'm kidding about this." But it was perfectly clear that she wasn't.

She pointed out the barista, the scruffy guy making foam, not the skinny guy on the register. "Now he, he doesn't shop with us. Those aren't cut-rate Levi's on his cute ass. He spends seven for all mankind bank."

I pretended to know what the hell she was talking about. She spoke in a code that involved names like Wang and words like espadrille. Somehow that summer seminar in James Joyce was pure clarity compared to this.

I listened carefully to her words as she dissected the foam-dishing barista from a distance--the cut of his hair, which "product" he used, the designer of his shirt mostly hidden by the green apron, the length of his facial stubble, which to me said a night of partying, but Danielle had decoded as careful grooming which was apparently back in this season, but just barely.

And just as she told me that this man scooping foam was the kind of man that sane girls lusted after, I had to accept the fact, that perhaps I was a lesbian if I didn't find this man attractive. Then she added, "It's a shame he's so gay."

I was hoping to ask about office politics, or what the work entailed, or perhaps even the company Christmas party, but it always got back to the pathetic slugs around us and how she somehow escaped the ravages of everyday life.

Her words became a droning, a pattern, a locust's buzzing of judgments and universals that didn't seem to apply to anyone I'd ever met before. I stared between her eyebrows, a trick I learned in Public Speaking, to make it look like I was making eye contact.

"So, I said to her, I don't care what your religion says, I just want-" The longer I looked at her, the more every feature seemed grotesque and out of proportion. The more the lovely face disintegrated into hideous components thrown together to gather around her thick lips and perfect white teeth that just kept moving, kept going.

It made me think back to eighth grade and the scene it Alice in Wonderland where as she looks down, the stolen infant becomes a pig and I thought that was the most horrible thing I could imagine.

And just as I was about to slide my cup away, as I was about to be sick from the sound of her, the sight of her, an adorable boy, the skinny, clean-shaven barista that was working the register, came over to wipe our table, smiled and handed her his phone number with a wink.

Angrily, she glared up, "Can't you see we're having a conversation here?"

And the boy, with his floppy haircut and shining blue eyes and the hand painted details on his Converse slipped back behind the counter and continued to glance back at Danielle's scarily thin form as she went on about her parents' vacation homes and her neighbors that she would bet are secretly Jewish.

And I thought with disgust that maybe marketing wasn't right for me.

And I thought with despair as that straight, cute boy stared right past me, "It's stupid how beautiful some people are."

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