I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers.
-- Kahlil Gibran
The woman with one dreadlock in her otherwise nondescript mousy brown hair carried a chair to my table and set it down authoritatively. From across the coffee shop I had offered her a smile of recognition, which was apparently interpreted as one of welcome. "Over here, Joshua!" she called over her shoulder to her ever-present sidekick. She pronounced his name in accordance with how it is spelled, "Jah-schwa" (though he usually draws an elaborate, upside-down "e" in lieu of spelling the second half of his name phonetically). Joshua scurried over to us while taking care not to spill the two cups of coffee balanced in his arms or lose his grip on the multigrain blueberry muffin he carried on a plate. "They were gonna give me a paper plate, but I asked for a real one that could be washed and reused," he muttered as he set it down, clearly in an attempt to garner approval from the strict environmentalist seated across from me. He beamed when she bestowed upon him an approving smile.
"Whatcha doin'?" she asked me. I gestured toward the book in my hands. "Is it good? Can you believe this shit going on with the price of gas? I'm telling you, we should all be on bicycles." I had begun to nod in answer to her first question, but deftly switched to a morose shaking of my head from left to right in response to the second, and finished with a sharp, succinct nod as silent agreement to her last statement regarding bicycles. "It's the worst possible time, too. I mean, this shit will probably only be worse by the end of the summer, which means we'll have to fit, like, five people into each car on the Burning Man caravan just to pay for the gas, you know what I mean?"
With a practiced jerk of her neck, the woman flipped her dreadlock around to the front of her right shoulder from where it had been resting, out of eyesight, on her back. She stroked the matted lock of hair with her fingers, up and down, carefully keeping her hands in the same position, palm facing her shoulder, as to allow full view of her brightly painted fingernails -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue.
"I didn't realize indigo still counted," I said, pointing to her left thumb. The woman with the dreadlock who goes by the name "Rainbow" held her thumbs together, thus connecting the spectrum of colors that began with the candy-apple red on the tip of her right pinky. I wondered when Henry's started selling that Day-Glo orange polish that graced both of her ring fingers.
She wiggled her fingers, nodded ambiguously, and took a swig of her coffee. "So what's up with you? I haven't seen you in forever," she said, a hint of playful accusation in her tone.
"Oh, this and that." I paused to organize my thoughts.
"I'm sure you heard that Carol's having a barbecue this weekend," she said, eyeing me closely.
"Yeah, I know, I'll be there," I said. Joshua was on the edge of his seat; the table seemed to be the only thing keeping him from falling over as he leaned in even further. "You going?" I asked.
"Hell no," Rainbow said enthusiastically. "Absolutely not." I shot her a perplexed look. "Well, you know why, don't you? You know what she is , don't you? She's a Catholic . And a Republican ." She spit out the words as though their taste was bitter and offensive.
"So?" I asked.
"So, SO ! What, do you think that I'm gonna hang with someone who believes she has a right to tell me what I'm allowed to do with my body?"
"What, did you talk to her about abortion or something?" I asked, waiting to be enlightened as to what grand assault had been committed against the woman before me whose pink-sunburned nostrils were now flaring.
"I didn't need to, you know what I'm sayin'? The fact that she's a Catholic tells me all I need to know, you know? I mean, this isn't the fuckin' Middle Ages --" she paused to take a bite of her muffin and I glanced at Joshua, who was nodding vigorously. "These people just don't know how to live and let live. Telling me what I should or should not believe. It makes me sick to think about it, you know what I'm sayin'? So, no, no way would I go to her party. I like me my variety -- all kinds of different people living together in harmony. How can we do that with people like her around, trying to tell me I'm a bad person because I want control over my own body?"
"I think she's nice," I said. "At least she's living her message, volunteering all the time for the stuff she believes in, which I don't knock her for. I may not agree with her, but I respect her for being consistent with her beliefs."
"She may volunteer for her church, but she's just a brainwashed pawn in the Vatican's crusade to recruit more thoughtless followers," said Joshua.
"Yeah, so, no thank you, girl," said Rainbow. "I don't need none of that, nuh uh. And, anyway, like I want to go to a barbecue and smell burning flesh? Whatever. I'm sure you'll have fun and all, but I'm steering clear. So what have you been up to, Barb? Tell me what you've been doing. Where have you been hiding yourself? And can you believe it, Joshua? I just found out -- they're putting a Starbucks in Barb's building. There you have it, everything that's wrong with society in one cup of burnt coffee. Now, see this place? I wish a million of these would go up. Here's a coffee shop with some integrity. When I found out Sarah got a job at Starbucks, I was, like, 'You sold out, girl.' She was all, 'I couldn't find another job!' But, I don't care, there are other ways to live than to support soulless corporate conglomerates. I do just fine, and I haven't worked for the man in over ten years."
"Didn't Starbucks begin like this?" I wondered out loud.
"I'd hate to see this place turn into the next Starbucks," Joshua mumbled quietly, but loud enough to cause Rainbow to pause and slowly turn her head toward him. Her dreadlock slipped off of her shoulder, returning to its natural resting place at the back of her neck.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, if this coffee shop spit out a bunch of clones, wouldn't it be the next Starbucks? Wouldn't it be the same thing? That would just suck."
Regret poured over Joshua's reddening face when Rainbow shot him a glare cold enough to stop global warming. Joshua held his cup of coffee close to his face the way a child might cradle his favorite blanket.
"Yeah. Anyway," said Rainbow, jerking her head until the dreadlock reappeared on her shoulder. She gave Joshua a dismissive, colorful wave and looked me purposefully in the eye. "So, Barb. What. Is. Up? Where have you been hiding? What are you doing?" With no promise of getting back to my novel any time soon, I sighed, closed my book, and tried to think of an acceptable answer.