During the winter holidays, Augie’s Coffee Roasters of Claremont, California is overflowing with recent college graduates reuniting, families stopping for a moment with babies in strollers and young couples chatting over matcha, oat milk lattes. The customers spill out to the tables of the Packing House, a relic of the ancient Californian citrus empire that’s been repurposed into a village attraction, complete with artists’ lofts and a used bookstore.
It’s a joyous scene — a busy one — and a testament to a downtown that’s really come into itself over the past decade. Claremont, my hometown, is a city superficially similar to Ann Arbor, in terms of coffee shop offerings and deliberately cultivated, upper-middle class quirk. After all, all happy college towns are alike.
I found myself at Augie’s not to meet old high school friends or catch up with extended family, but rather to seek out a small bit of normalcy in the strange, boneless time of year that is winter break as a college student. After a semester of a meticulously scheduled Google Calendar, a planner overflowing with deadlines and overly-optimistic aspirations, friends’ birthday parties and Rick’s Thursdays, moving back into my mom’s house for a few weeks tends to feel weird, for lack of a better word. The structure I’ve built around myself in Ann Arbor dissipates, and there’s the constant, uneasy feeling of falling backwards in time, the hovering fear that without a booked schedule and my college friends around me, I’ll revert back to my 17-year-old self — a terrifying prospect.
Coffee shops, however, are familiar territory. Having spent the majority of the past three and half years buying overpriced coffee with most of my minimal income, using the flimsy justification that the caffeine will power me through the essay of the moment, I know my way around these spaces. I know how to be myself — the college-aged version of myself, that is — in coffee shops, whether they are in Michigan or California.
So, I swapped out my living room couch for Augie’s, and set up shop with my book of the moment — “Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett — at a wobbly table in the interior of the Packing House, adjacent to Augie’s storefront.
Surrounded by the chaos of happy reunifications, I was particularly conscious of my solitude. So, my relief was palpable when I made the discovery that I had a lone comrade in my reading pursuits — a blonde boy sitting diagonal from me, buried in an unidentifiable paperback. He seemed utterly undisturbed by the goings-on around him, absorbed in some alternate world in the pages of his beat-up novel.
We were sitting facing each other, yet at a safe enough distance that I managed to sneak glances in his direction, intrigued by my fellow reader. What was he so engrossed in? Did he also feel self-conscious at sitting alone while laughter rang around us?
I pulled out my phone to check Instagram and was immediately ashamed of myself — my reading companion would surely never be so superficial as to put aside his literature for the banality of social media. Several minutes later, however, I caught him setting down his book spine-up on the table to scroll through his phone for a few minutes, and was reassured. We were kindred souls, I reasoned: both big fans of reading and good literature, yet not so self-righteous that we were above the distractions of social networks. He got me, I got him.
My companion had to be somewhere in my age range, had the look of an older college student or recent grad and seemed like someone also trying to get some breathing space from his family over the holidays. He was blonde and clean-cut, so I figured he was either an economics major or beginning his studies at dental school. Not the most breathtakingly handsome man I’d ever seen, but definitely workable material. We’d get along, I speculated, and though we probably wouldn’t have the same music taste, I could see him wanting to talk about politics or check out new independent films. He’d get along great with my dad.
For an hour, we sat as such, me buried in “Commonwealth,” and him in his respective reading pursuit. Customers came and went — a loud woman with neck tattoos vacated the table to my left in favor of a young father, whose toddling offspring attached herself to any and all passersby. I smiled, and out of the corner of my eye, caught him smiling at the same moment.
Suddenly, there came the worst possible betrayal — I looked up from a particularly engrossing chapter to realize that my companion had vanished, leaving behind an empty chair and table. The dad and child were still to my left, as were the loud, grad students behind me, but his place was undeniably vacant.
What disloyalty! Such treachery! We’d built a future together in the hour that had passed in Augie’s — and this boy had the nerve to throw it all to the wind!
Only now sitting truly alone and feeling quite jilted — but also rather amused — at my evaporated fantasies, did I allow myself to float down to reality.
Sure, it was the idea of it. Of course, it was, it always is, right? The idea that buying a new top will fix all my problems, the idea of the perfect internship in a big city and the idea of the guy in the coffee shop. The ideas that always tend to turn out the same way — the top predictably ends up being just a top, the perfect internship inevitably ends up being at least 80 percent busy work. The guy leaves the coffee shop before anything ever begins.
It’s the idea that college has made me more educated, thoughtful and self-confident — worlds away from the insecure 17-year-old that frequented this same coffee shop four years — a lifetime —ago. The self who breezes through her hometown on short visits before moving on to bigger and better things. A self who has perfected herself in every possible aspect — overcome all her flaws, a self who no man would (ever) turn down — or even, god forbid, fail to approach in the neighborhood coffee shop.
I told myself he probably had awful breath. Or maybe he was studying finance and would have ended up to be one of those men who would advise me on my 401k within the first few minutes of a conversation.
So caught up was I in my new justification that I almost missed the blond guy returning to his seat — he’d only gone for a coffee refill.
We read together, sitting at our separate tables, for another two hours, before parting ways. This time, it was I who left first and who neglected to bid him farewell. I could have talked to him, I suppose, but what would have been the use of that? It was only ever just the idea of it.