by Paulene Turner
cappuccino with chocolate sprinkles
An artist working in a coffee shop in New Orleans discovers that true beauty lies beneath the froth.
Close up on a Cappuccino. In a brown ceramic cup. The topping is bridal white, flecked with chocolate sprinkles. It smells like Heaven. Tastes almost as good. A work of art for all the senses.
"Err, eleven," I say.
Helena, the coffee house manager, carries the cup through the busy tables to a dark-haired woman working on a laptop. Phoebe, mid-twenties, is one of our regulars. She takes a sip and gets a white froth moustache.
I heat the milk again. The shooshing sound, like the distant roar of the ocean, is the soundtrack to my life these days. I'm an artist with paint and pencils mostly but until I earn enough money from that, I make coffee art in my job as a barista at Aromas, a coffee house in the French quarter of New Orleans.
Through the haze of the steaming milk, I take in the scene. The buzzy vibe, the laughter. And Fleur. Early twenties, with latte skin, dark wavy hair to her waist, and eyes like artisan chocolates. I'd like to paint her. Draped in faux leopard skin – a jungle Goddess. But first, I'd have to get to know her.
The milk screams – a protest at my inattention – and scorches my thumb. I run it under cold water. The pain ebbs. "There's some Aloe Vera in the fridge," says Helena. "Looks like green slime but works wonders."
Helena is Australian and Aromas is her baby. Built in a converted warehouse with high ceilings, two blocks from the Mississippi river, it's filled with interesting lights, coffee-themed art and old espresso machines in glass cases. Hessian sacks around the room spill out fragrant coffee beans from all over the world. There's an air of devotion about the place – to the coffee bean. Cappuccino cathedral.
"In Australia, we take cappuccino seriously," says Helena. "But not much else." She's tall and pale, with wispy blond hair and smiley blue eyes.
Aromas has only been here a few months but already everyone knows it's The Best. The young and the old, the deprived and the depraved of New Orleans all pass through. On cold nights, Helena even takes a van out to deliver cappuccino to the Homeless. Everyone is addicted to her coffee.
She's fussy about her staff and interviewed widely for a handful of positions. "I only want people who understand coffee," she says, "who appreciate its sensuality, its art." I must have said the right thing because she took me on – even though I'd never made a cappuccino before.
"The only thing I ask of my baristas," she said before my first shift, "apart from making each cup a drop of Heaven, is that you don't hit on the customers. Don't date them, not while you work for me."
"Fine," I said. "Can I ask why?"
"Santiago, you're a good-looking guy," she said. "In this job, you'll meet a lot of women – or men – if that's your thing. .." She pauses for confirmation. I grin, but give her none. "If you date someone and the romance sours, they might feel uncomfortable coming back. Then I lose a customer and they lose their coffee house – which is even worse."
"No dating customers," I said. "Got it."
"Let me guess. Skinny cappuccino? No choc sprinkles?" Fleur, the Goddess, is right in front of me.
She turns to me, eyes glazed, thoughts elsewhere. "What? Oh yeah, thanks."
"And how's your day been?"
My question hangs, unanswered, as she picks up her cup and weaves through the tables to her group at the back. Her skin glows, her teeth are perfect. Maybe I should paint her lolling on a bed with rose petals all around.
"How many coffees do you think you make a day?" Phoebe is back for another caffeine hit.
"Hundreds. And that's just for you."
"And what is the secret ingredient for a good coffee?"
"You know I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."
Phoebe is like an unmade bed – always messy, but comfortable. Her default expression is wry.
I pour cold milk into the silver jug, sinking the heat nozzle just below the surface briefly before plunging it deeper into the creamy liquid.
"How come you don't heat the milk up for as long as other cafes?"
"You ask a lot of questions."
"I am a journalist."
"Well, if you must know..."
"We put hot water in the cups to warm them – so we don't need to heat the milk for as long."
"And heating up the milk is bad because...?"
"You lose a lot of the natural sugars. Satisfied?"
As she walks back to her table, I call: "If you have any more questions, just shout 'em out." She grins.
A lull in customers gives me a chance to catch up on orders. First, hot water to warm the cups. Grind the beans. Put the fluffy granules into the portafilter – levelling it with my finger, then compressing it with the metal tamper. Lock filter into place, place cups to catch the waterfall of liquid gold – not too fast or too slow or the coffee becomes bitter.
I heat the milk, swirl it round and bang the jug down three times on the table to polish it to a shine, like beaten egg whites. Pour the coffee into the cup, add milk, then begin the jerky movements necessary to create cappuccino art on the foam. A plastic stirrer and tube of chocolate sauce are the tools to finesse my designs.
I've done flowers, stars and a half-decent swan. I tried other animals too, but they need work. I've mastered the heart shape, but I want something extra for Fleur. So, with the chocolate sauce, I write 4 U inside the heart. Less subtly, I scribble on a paper napkin: Meet me at the Cat's Pyjamas in Frenchmen street at 10pm. I fold it, put it on the saucer with the usual hand-made chocolate. Impulsively, I snatch a second chocolate from the bowl – heart-shaped – and put that on too.
I watch Helena take the coffee to Fleur. Nerves bubble inside me like over-frothed milk.
It's frosty on Frenchmen's – the heart of jazz in this town. People keep warm by dancing to a street band. A block down is the Cat's Pyjamas. Jazz-lovers crowd the doorways, spill onto the pavement.
I squeeze inside. Tonight, there's a trio of guys over 60. They're really good – jazz is in their genes.
I scan for Fleur, catching my reflection in a mirror behind the bar. My wavy black hair is wilder than usual. I run my fingers through it, but it defies order. I have the pale skin of my American father, the shiny beetle eyes of my Chilean mother. I'm usually confident about my appearance, but not tonight.
I make it to the back of the bar without seeing her. She's not here. Disappointment, like water from a cracked levee, rushes over me. She's not coming.
Well, of course she's not. Why would she? What was I thinking?
My view is blocked by a huge man in a New Orleans Voodoo T-shirt. Like a large cruise ship, he moves off slowly to reveal ... Phoebe, sitting at the bar. Is this a coincidence.? On the bench beside her, I spy the napkin with my handwriting on it. Oh no! I see what happened. The coffees got mixed up and she got Fleur's by mistake. This is embarrassing.
"Hey?" she shouts.
I nod and stretch my mouth into a smile, which I hope looks natural.
Worming my way through the warm bodies to her side, we listen, in silence, to a couple of songs – it's too loud to speak anyway, but louder inside my head as I figure out what to say. Clearly, the girl has the wrong idea here, I have to set her right. But gently. The song ends abruptly. I open my mouth to speak but a drum solo starts up, making communication impossible. So I point to the door. Phoebe nods, slugs down the rest of her drink and rises.
Outside, the street party is still going strong. The road is thick with dancers, some look like they're in a voodoo trance. The cars inch through, drivers tapping the beat on the steering wheel.
We walk along the street, the noise recedes till we can hear the clip-clop of our shoes on the sidewalk. It's cold, but refreshing after the crowded bar. On the corner, we listen to a lonely saxophone player, dropping coins into his music case.
"So, you're an artist?" says Phoebe.
"How do you know?"
"I can tell by the coffee designs. Plus, I might have asked Helena about you."
She gives a shy grin, a tad flirty. Awkward.
"My cappuccino art has a fair way to go."
"I like the monkey," she says.
"Monkey?" I frown. "You mean koala bear. I tried that to remind Helena of home."
"Oh," says Phoebe. "Well, maybe it does need work. What can we expect next? Picassos, Monets, Van Gogh all out of froth."
"Don't let Helena hear you call it froth. Other cafes make froth. We make dream cream."
I love the French quarter with its narrow Parisian-style streets, wrought iron balconies and great musicians on every corner. And of course, the reason I moved to this city – the vibrant art in shop windows. We pass a painting of a red dog, taller than me, and a stylised superhero cartoon, in high gloss. "One day, my paintings will be in those shops."
"Maybe I'll buy one with the first cheque from my multi-book publishing deal."
"Really? You've got a publishing deal?"
"Not yet. But one day ..."
We stroll along the Mississippi, which is silvery in the moonlight, no hint of the usual mud brown. A large paddle steamer docks. On the upper deck, a pair of lovers cling to each other.
I've been in town for two months – from sunny L.A. Phoebe has been here a few months longer. "I understand why it's called the Big Easy now," she says. "I had to get the rush of New York out of my system before I could appreciate the N'Orlins rhythm."
She's easy to talk to, and funny, but I'm really tired. It's been a long day and I'm crashing after my earlier adrenaline rush. I sneak a look at my watch. Phoebe catches me and pretends not to.
We arrive at Jackson Square, lined with fortune tellers at fold-up tables, predicting futures by candlelight.
"Would you like to know what your future holds?" a skinny woman with a magenta headscarf asks. Phoebe shakes her head no.
"Go on," I say. "It'll be fun."
She sits opposite the woman who stares into a glass ball and begins murmuring. In the candlelight, Phoebe's face looks soft and vulnerable.
When she's done: "I'm going to meet a dark handsome man, who'll steal my heart away," she says.
"That's not so farfetched," I say. "I'm sure there are plenty of men out there – dark and fair – who would wish to steal your heart."
She gives a tight smile, no light in her eyes.
I can't hold back a yawn."I'd better get home," I say. "I've got an early shift."
I pull my jacket tightly around me against the cold and start to move off.
"Santiago," she calls. "Can I ask you something?"
I turn back.
"Did you mean to send that note to me? It's just, I've had this feeling all night, you were ... expecting someone else."
"No, of course not," I say, too quickly. "I don't know many people in town. I thought we could be friends."
"Friends? Well, we all need those."
She draws her lips up in a smile, but it doesn't take an artist's special eye to see, it's a poor imitation of the real thing.
The next day, I experiment with coffee art. I have to discard several cups (I pay for the spoils) as I try a special design – Fleur's profile.
"Hey, I saw you walking with Phoebe last night," said Helena, refilling the chocolate bowl. "I hope that wasn't a date?"
"We're just friends."
"She does the cappuccino run for the Homeless with me sometimes, you know. She's a great girl."
"No argument there."
Around lunchtime, a government inspector called Simon Milton comes in asking to see Helena. When she offers him coffee, he declines. "I only drink tea."
He's in a grey suit and black shirt, with clear green eyes and a serious mouth. About 40. "People say you have a secret ingredient in your product?," he says. "Something highly addictive. Can you tell me what that is, Ms Braithwaite?"
Helena smiles. "Well, there's caffeine."
"Freshly ground beans, good coffee craft, and...
"Love. In every cup," said Helena.
"Love?" he says, left eyebrow pinging up. "Are you certain it's not something more potent? Like cocaine?"
Half a dozen inspectors storm into the building, clear everyone out for about two hours while they do tests on our coffee beans. They find nothing but Helena loses the morning's income. All her customers have to go elsewhere for their coffee.
"Tell me, Mr Milton, did someone phone you with a tipoff about this alleged cocaine?" says Helena.
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say."
"Did you consider it could be someone with a grievance – like one of my competitors?"
"We're sorry to have inconvenienced you Miss Braithwaite. We'll be on our way."
"No, you will not. Sit down. I'm making you a coffee."
"I don't drink-"
"You're going to have a coffee and that's that," said Helena. "Now sit."
He could say no, but he doesn't. Eyes downcast, lips pouty, he looks a puppy who's done his business in the house.
He sips tentatively at first, but then I see something in his face – wonder. He's taken in by the magic that is coffee, and this place. By the time he leaves, he's a convert, I can see. Helena sends him off with a list of her chief competitors, who he will visit for a "chat".
"Do you think he had nice eyes?" says Helena.
"No dating the customers, remember?"
By the next evening, my design is good enough to show. I take the coffee to Fleur myself. On the saucer is a serviette with an invitation to meet me for a sunset stroll along the Mississippi.
She's deep in conversation as I place the cup down. I linger for a moment, hopeful. She sees the design, looks up at me and smiles.
"Did you do this? It looks like me."
"I'm putting this on Instagram." She snaps a photo. "Are you an artist?"
I nod. "I'd like to paint you."
I can't control my grin as I walk back to the cappuccino machine.
"Is this from you too?" she shouts. "An invite to walk along the river at six?"
Helena, stops, coffees in hand. "Well, answer the girl, Santiago. Did you invite her for a walk after your shift?"
She lowers her voice. "You can go out with her. You just can't work here too. You have to choose."
I love this job – I don't want to lose it. But I know, if it comes down to it, I've made my choice. I open my mouth to speak, when a voice chimes in from behind.
"It wasn't him. That note was from me."
We turn to see Phoebe behind us.
"You?" says Fleur, coming over. "You want me to go for a walk with you?"
"Well, you're hot and all," says Fleur. "But I'm more into guys than girls. Sorry."
"Just thought I'd ask," says Phoebe.
I slink back to the counter, beyond mortified.
"That was a turn-up," says Helena. "I had no idea Phoebe was that way inclined. I thought she had a thing for you, actually. Still, whatever rocks her socks. Everyone is welcome here. Except tea drinkers."
I make a special cappuccino for Phoebe, pay for it myself, load the saucer with extra chocolates, adding a note: "You are a good friend." I push through the crowd to her table, but she's gone.
Fast forward a month. Mr Milton – or Simon, as we call him now, is a regular. He loves cappuccino. Helena makes all his drinks personally.
Fleur and I have been out a few times – without the boss knowing. One night she took me to a bar to hear her grandma sing. The woman is Dee Dee Porter – famous in jazz circles. She was amazing.
Fleur is sweet and lovely, but like the steam off the hot milk – difficult to hold and a little insubstantial. She was keen on me painting her, though, and I did think about it. I even went out to buy the paints (I had settled on a cat woman theme.). In the end, I painted her Grandma instead.
During that month, Phoebe didn't come into Aromas once. I found myself looking for her, missing her easy humour.
"I wonder what happened to Phoebe," says Helena. "Perhaps she's gone back to New York. I wish her well. Though, I'd like to have said goodbye."
At the end of my shift, I wander the streets, mulling over how badly things ended with her. I was so focused on Fleur's physical form, I'd missed something potentially better. I'm not quite sure what. Now I'll never know.
Then I think – what if she is still in New Orleans, just avoiding Aromas because of me? Where would she be? I make a list of the three next best cafes and keep watch on them.
On day two, I see her sitting in the window in Corelli's cafe.
When Phoebe's cappuccino is delivered, she looks down and freezes. Atop the white polished cream is a weird monkey. Her eyes drop to the serviette on the saucer. She reads it. "Can you forgive me? Monkey man."
Slowly she turns and sees me, peering from behind Corelli's cappuccino machine. She takes a sip, and smiles, with a little froth moustache.
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