Julia was the first woman I met when I moved to Austin.
She was a barista at the Starbucks by my apartment. Before I had internet, I had Starbucks. Before I had friends, I had Julia. So every night until Time Warner had the decency to stop by, I went to Starbucks to use their internet and talk to Julia.
And thus began my coffee addiction.
Julia provided for me the classic conundrum of customer-based acquaintanceship. She knew my name, and when I walked through the door, she would wave and ask me how I was doing. I knew sparse details about her past and a general scope of her present. We would chat, and then I would order coffee, sit down for two hours, and disappear.
Are employees friendly because you’re a customer, or friendly because you’re a friend? Can a customer ever really be considered a friend? Well, I didn’t know, and I didn’t bother finding out, because one day, Time Warner showed up and installed my internet. I didn’t go back to Starbucks for weeks.
Then I ran out of coffee beans, so I went back to Starbucks, and Julia was there behind the counter as always. She called me out on having disappeared for so long, so I explained that I finally had internet and was making coffee at home. We then talked for a while as always, then I ordered coffee for old time’s sake, sat down for a while, and at closing, began to walk towards the exit.
Julia called out at me as I was leaving:
“Hey, Jeff. Don’t be a stranger.”
I smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”
I haven’t been back to that Starbucks since. That was two years ago.
As it turns out, I think about Julia often. I’m not quite sure what role I played in her life, if any role at all, but I’d like to think she looked forward to seeing me walk through those doors every night, if for no other reason than to establish a brief and thin thread of a connection with some other human being on this planet. Goodness knows, I looked forward to seeing her, if for no other reason than to see another human being smile back.
A recurring theme: that mystique behind characters who enter your life briefly only to leave as quickly as they have arrived. Some of the most important characters in my life’s story are people whose names I never even knew, and yet they stand for me as symbolic representations of ideas or romantic sentiments. For instance, there was a woman on a train in Eastern Europe with which I watched the landscape pass by through our window – the star-crossed lovers that never were (yes, quite a cliche, but so is happiness). There was a woman once trapped in an elevator with which I conversed from the other side for an afternoon – a testament to the silliness of blind courtship. Somewhere, an old coworker I chased with futile vehemence, perhaps because I knew it was futile, perhaps because I knew we were the worst possible match, and therefore nothing was at stake.
Women, women, women… I won’t lie – I’m a sucker for forever-lost pseudo-connections. I’m sorry, Julia.
And yet, these individuals I meet for an hour, for a day, for years throughout college, and never meet again – they torment me, because as much as I enjoy the poetic angst of a lost connection, deep down inside, I hate myself for it. Perhaps I listen to too much Russian music. Maybe I’m afraid of vulnerability. Regardless, I look back on these individuals with a form of self-spite, angry that I so willingly left them, or let them so willingly leave me.
Call it the Tragedy of Friends that Never Were.
Maybe I was that tragedy for Julia. Maybe not. Who knows?
And yet, for some reason, I often hear her voice telling me, “Hey, Jeff. Don’t be a stranger,” and those words resonate with me, because now every time I meet someone whom I am destined to lose to time or mild acquaintanceship, I think, “Hey. Don’t be a stranger,” and that thought occurs not in my voice, but in Julia’s.
In due time, I will start saying that to people: “Hey, don’t be a stranger.” They will hear it in my voice, but really it will be Julia’s words. I owe it to her to pass on a little bit of our brief past together to those who share a brief present with me.
And then suddenly I wonder: how much of what we say to each other is said in secret homage to someone else?