Here where I sit, the witching hour is at 6am. The hush thrums lightly on every surface. Only the earliest morning sun filters through. There are no things, only the shapes of things bulging oddly in the dim light. The chairs lie in their scattered formations. The patterned metal gate slinks around the counter, the chains like a set of teeth. Bared in preparation. You still want to reach through the gaps. Beyond and beyond, tentatively balanced mounds of pastries crowd on the countertops. The cash register is barricaded on all sides by scones. And there on the backbench: the hulking espresso machine, resting on its haunches. Matte black frame and sexy silver sheen. Modernity at its best.
I have always thought of earliness in splashes of color. The cheerful orange of juice in a glass, the whiteness of toothpaste against my cherry-red toothbrush, the rich, deep black of coffee – I was taught like this, because I lived my mornings in between one color and the next, in hurried gulps of vividness and then out the door with only one hand in a coat. But the early bird is variations of grey, its wings grey, its feathers gray, its song spreading dim grayness across the swept floors and tidied shelves. I like this gray. Gray is subtle, gray is honest.
Then at eight, the machines growl louder, the birds outside croak harsher and the gray pulls back its fingers slightly. The elevator cracks open and Rob walks out. He is never surprised to see me this early, just nods and shoots me the Rob special: his sudden sunny smile. It’s a good smile, all perfect teeth and good humor that reaches up to his eyes. I am always dazzled. Rob clicks his tongue once and begins the good work, jangling keys, clicking buttons, wiping tables. The gray shrinks before him – he chases it away in smooth, easy strokes. The steam rises; the line forms. I order first, my soy cappuccino, and then sit to watch how the witching hour bleeds away. Girls in leggings search through the jumbled tray of bananas. Boys in caps, in long socks and crisp, pressed shirts saunter up to the counter. Rob serves them all in a rattling rhythm. I catch glimpses of his smile between arms and shoulders. His arm held high and curved when he pours the milk. The soft muttering, the register ping. And always, the foaming spout’s moderated scream.
After an hour, the how-are-yous and thin, polite smiles begin to grate, so I look away, following the gray as it flees. The windows are ceiling high with wooden ledges, cutouts carved by careful engineers. Outside, the bells ring, and I see the trees reaching up with their naked branches towards the sky in great, elegant sweeps. The roofs of the other dormitories stretch invitingly below and their sloping surfaces angle dangerously down, dangerously fun. I imagine what it would be like to play on them. Running from rooftop to rooftop, gulping in the crispy air, creeping down towards the drop and sitting with my legs dangling over the side. The tiles are grainy under my hands, so cutting and abrasive. Suddenly, the enclosed space I’m in feels unbearable. The glimpse of outside calls to me mournfully, but the windows do not open here. It is a safety hazard, you see.
So the sun tracks across the sky and I sit and watch and sip. Here is a man coming to buy cereal and milk, a plastic fork already held in his mouth, no words necessary, money changing hands – and then he is gone. Here are the candy bins, twenty different kinds, each one foraged into by twenty kinds of people, furtively, guiltily, desperately. Here in my chair, a girl with glasses stewed last night, writing about tax limits in even, careful letters until her head dropped, and again the night before that and before that. Here in this room, strangers at different tables have sipped their coffee quietly, eyeing each other when it is safe but not daring to speak, not quite yet. The Bella Union is fourteen years old, and here I sit daily, cupping this soy cappuccino with no foam. A kind of grief overwhelms me at the thought of this history. I gulp my drink, but it is still too hot. It slides down my throat in numb, scalding streams and I choke until tears prick at my eyes, the bitterness, the burn. Even then, I still taste the four packets of Splenda, too syrupy to be real sugar, so sweet, overwhelming, and for a moment I drown, there is nothing else in the world, nothing sweeter than this.