Love at the Wawa

(2,500 words)

Claire barreled into the parking lot of the mini-market, stereo blaring. “You’re the top,” she sang along with Sutton Foster. “You’re a Shakespeare sonnet. Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm. You’re Mickey Mouse.” After quitting the engine, she let the soundtrack play a few moments, so she could belt the high notes at the end of the chorus.

She had just completed 15 reps on the squat-thrust machine in 30 seconds, a personal best, and decided to treat herself with Wawa coffee. A silly name for a mini-market—Wawa. Their gas never did a thing for her Camry either—the engine pinging and knocking after every fill-up; she swore it was watered down. But Wawa coffee had no equal. It was better than—a Chopin concerto, a Dickens . . . quarto, she thought as she entered the store, surprising herself as she sang outloud, “Alison Krauss!”

At the Green Street Wawa, two monolithic rows of fresh coffee in steel carafes, lined the coffee atoll. Three kinds of lightener with varying butterfat content sat out in chilled pitchers while individual-serving creamers sat iced in glass bowls. Usually, she topped her coffee with skim milk. After today’s workout, she had earned the calorie-laden flavored stuff. Sin you can sip, she called it. After twenty years of marriage and half as many of those as the town librarian, most of Claire’s sins were potable and edible ones, redeemed by diet and exercise. She’d never committed a big sin thus far—theft, murder, adultery—only in her mind, never suspecting today’s Wawa visit would become her regrets-only invitation to a September-May affair.

She poured herself a large cup, added three amaretto creamers, and glanced toward the front of the store. Which lane to choose, she wondered, securing the plastic lid.  One lane always snagged up—she couldn’t afford to get caught this morning. The library had to be open by nine o’clock.

That’s when she saw him. Long, blue-black shiny hair, thick and wavy as sea billows. A pair of shoulders, broad as a boulevard. She followed the line of his shoulders to forearms bulging from a short-sleeved polyester shirt to a trim waist to firm, young buttocks—not a saggy, middle-aged tuchus like Karl’s, whose sloped inward. No, this young man’s posterior was one to remember.

Could the face deliver on the promise inherent in the backside? Cup in hand, she cruised past the sales counter until his visage came into view. A gentle widow’s peak framed deep brown eyes that smiled along with his mouth. He had a strong, aqualine nose, and a clear olive complexion, lightly tanned with a thin shadow of a heavy beard. A rawhide chain clasped around his neck, silver and brown beads visible above the neckline of his uniform. Adonis reborn as a Wawa clerk. She glanced at his name tag: Cristophe.

Feigning interest in an out-of-town newspaper, she stepped back into line, waiting for her turn. Finally, she and Cristophe stood face to face.

“Is that it, ma’am?” He spoke easily, gently. “Just coffee?”

Ma’am? She supposed that was better than “Madame Librarian,” which some smirking middle-aged patron called her about once a week. Unoriginal old goats.

“Just coffee?” she said, trying hard to sound breezy. “It’s never just coffee here…” She let his name roll off her tongue, “Cristophe.”

“Call me Cris,” he said, his tanned hand resting on the counter inches from her cup.

“Cris,” she purred. “I’m sure the higher-ups want me to keep your cash register ringing. But it’s just coffee today.” Every part of her face felt toasty warm, every sinew in her torso aflame.

What had she just said? Cash registers don’t ring anymore, Claire Crane! They beep.

But Cristophe smiled at her anyway as the cash register beeped away.

She retrieved her cup from the counter, grazing his fingertips. “Beautiful name, Cristophe.”

“It’s Greek.” He shrugged. “I’m Greek.”

“Greek.” She sighed, her heart dissolving as she imagined Cris sunbathing in the Cyclades. Maybe on the Red Beach, his long, taut frame in the briefest of Speedo suits, stretched out on a striped chaise longue. A woman in line behind her conspicuously cleared her throat.

Wait your turn! Claire wanted to snap at her. He’s mine now.

“Loved Greece. I spent a semester there in college,” Claire said. Without waiting for Cris to respond, she drew a five dollar bill from her pocket and laid it in front of him, so he’d have to hand her change. “I had no idea that blue is the national color of Greece. The blue domes on the churches, blue-checked tablecloths at the beach-side cafés.”

“Never been there,” Cris said, punching some keys. When the cash register opened, he fished out her change.

The admission surprised her. She held out her hand. “Well, Cristophe. Someone with such a traditional name deserves to go to Greece some day,” then uttering a demure, “Buh-bye.”

As she exited, she had a vision that made her heart thump: She and Cristophe seated together at a café table in Tolo, gazing over the inlet at the fishing boats docking for the evening, watching the sun carve itself into a layer of sherbet, melting into his muscled arms for a lingering kiss.

What had her neighbor Mary Lou said when she and Claire ended up side by side at the fitness salon two days ago?

“Once I started the hormone replacement therapy,” Mary Lou reported, resting her thumb on her wrist, taking a pulse, “it kind of took care of the sex drive. Oh, and I slept so much better, too.”

“Took care of it?” Claire asked. “You mean, kicked it up a notch?”

As if Claire needed her sex drive ratcheted up one iota since she hit midlife. She turned forty-five and sexual synapses previously at parade rest for two decades snapped to attention at the mere mention of manly things—young and manly, mostly. It was a hormone-driven midlife bout of man worship that often reduced her to a splendor-stupor, especially around perfect specimens like Cris.

“No, I mean,” Mary Lou said. “It went away.”

Why in the world would Claire want her sex drive to go away? For the first time since her twenties, she felt in tune with her body.  Then again, maybe she should start hormone therapy—immediately. What was she doing, imagining herself kissing and fondling a man barely twenty-one at most. Why was a college-age boy working full-time in a Wawa anyway, assuming he worked full time? She’d find out next time she stopped in for coffee. With each twelve-ounce cup, she’d tease more out of him. She’d become the world’s leading expert on Cristophe, speaking on the national lecture circuit.

“Today on Oprah, we’ll ask the question, can a middle-aged librarian find happiness with a man half her age? My first guest is Claire Crane,” Oprah tells the studio audience. “So tell me, Claire, what is it about this boy a woman your age finds irresistible?”

Claire sighs, her arms wrapped around herself. “Oh, Oprah, Oprah, Oprah. It’s the potential for pleasure he represents, like a warm towel right out of the dryer, an intense foot massage, the perfect cookie.”

Oprah’s eyes widen. “Can you expand on the cookie analogy?”

“For me, Cristophe is a Fig Newton, the greatest of the great cookies. I can pass up Hydrox, Thin Mints, even Lorna Doones, but not a Fig Newton. A tawny, crusted cookie, filled with pulverized fruit. The sweet gooey center spills into my mouth with each bite, leaving a few tiny seeds to lick off my lips. Figs—as Greek as they come, no?”

“As Greek as—” Oprah clears her throat. “Well, that’s all the time we have today. Tune in tomorrow for the secret lives of real librarians, part two.”

*

For the next six weeks after each Saturday workout, Claire met Cristophe at the Wawa for a “coffee clutch,” so called because Claire would clutch her coffee while Cris rang her up; the only thing sweeter was imagining him in her clutches.

He hadn’t asked her age or offered his. “How long have you been out of school?” Claire asked, praying he was at least eighteen. Or she was flirting with an E-Z Pass to the state penitentiary.

“Graduated two years ago.”

Her eyes lit up as she smiled. “So that makes you . . . twenty?”

He nodded. What could she say to draw him out a little? “Have you always lived in the area?”

He shook his head. “I moved here from New Jersey in tenth grade. After my parents divorced, my mom and I needed a place to stay.” He motioned to Claire to move forward, so he could ring up the next customer. “We moved in with my aunt until my mom found a job.”

He went on to say he had two brothers, both older. The prospect of two more Cristophes made her want to wriggle into her Lycra one-piece and dive into the family gene pool. Though his brothers had gone to college, Cris never considered a four-year degree as an option.

He shrugged. “I’m not college material, but I hope to scrape enough money together working here and at my uncle’s scrapyard to go to . . .” He whispered the next part, “culinary school.”

*

Since Cris said he had family in Athens—he loved to talk about his family—each Saturday she shared another tidbit about Greece while buying coffee. Much as she might like to, she couldn’t monopolize him for too long or he would lose his job. And wouldn’t that be a fine kettle of swordfish! She could hardly visit with him in the scrapyard. She had to content herself with orts of conversation.

“What’s today’s tidbit?” Cris asked, smiling his trademark crescent grin.

“Santorini,” Claire said, delighted that Cris wanted to playalong. “A volcanic island. The sand is coarse. No need to bring a beach chair. The ocean front has dozens set up with thatched umbrellas. Row after row of blue and white striped beach chairs.”

“Sounds beautiful.”

“You have no idea.” Claire bit her lip. She’d told him about a technical school with a great reputation one county over, only a twenty minute drive from the highway. “Did you visit the culinary institute?”

He handed over her change from a big bill, which forced their hands together at least once a week. “I told Mom I needed the car for the day. So, we’ll see.”

Did Cris know how old she was? Did he care? Next time she went to the hairdresser, she’d ask her for more dramatic highlights, especially from the crown forward. Lightening one’s hair color alone sandblasted ten years of crag from a middle-aged woman’s face.

*

“You know what’s really fun?” she asked Cris the following week. “Island hopping in the Cyclades. Take a hydro-foil. It flies over the water at fifty miles an hour. You can be in Ios, enjoying the night life in half the time it takes to ferry there.”

“I’ll remember that,” he said, the crescent fading from his lips, “next time I’m in the Cyclades.”

“Don’t pout, darling. You’ll scare away the customers,” she said, and his smile reappeared. “You’ll get there. It took me twen—a long time to get to the British Isles where my roots are.” Time to change the subject. “How’s that application coming along?”

“Who should I use as a reference? I need at least one reference from someone in the food business.”

“There’s a fine Italian restaurant where my hus—my family and I go for dinner that’s looking for help. Out near the airport. You know how to get to the airport?”

“I’ll check it out.”

Store traffic was light; she could tarry a bit longer. “I lived on souvlaki when I was in Greece.”

“Love souvlaki,” he said. “It’s the cucumber sauce that makes it.”

“You picked out the most important ingredient in the dish. A natural chef.”

“Is a sandwich a dish?” he asked, ringing up her coffee and handing her change.

Touché, my little Emeril. “See you next week,” she said and skipped into the parking lot.

*

The following Saturday, Claire pulled into her usual space. Before she threw on the parking break, she glanced in the rearview mirror, admiring the blonde streaks falling gently around her face. She refreshed her berry lip gloss, too. She already had good color in her face from her workout—the exercise glow, Prevention Magazine called it.

Usually Cris caught her eye as she glided into the store en route to the help-ur-self coffee island. So, she was surprised not to see him that morning.

Not working at the sandwich counter or stocking shelves. Maybe he was behind the counter, putting money in the floor safe. She set her coffee on the counter, scouring the area. Still no Cristophe. A teenage girl named Gina was stationed at the register instead.

“Will that be all, ma’am?” Gina asked.

“Just coffee, thanks,” she said. “Isn’t Cristophe working? He usually works Saturday mornings.”

“The tall guy with the dark hair, dark complexion?”

Was she serious? How could any female work with Cris eight hours a day and not know him.

“You must be Claire. He told me to look for Claire today.”

This was better than Claire ever imagined. Maybe Cris wanted to meet her at the Comfort Inn so they could finally make beautiful moussaka together. What she dreamed of doing with him, of doing to him, bordered on unconscionable. But he was a Fig Newton, after all. No woman can be held accountable when tempted by a Fig Newton.

“He said, ‘Thanks,’” Gina said.

“Thanks for what?” Claire asked.

“He left from Philadelphia International for Greece. You made Greece sound so wonderful he had to see it for himself.”

Claire stood motionless for a long minute. “For how long?”

Gina smiled. “Oh, a few years, he said.”

“How nice!”

“That’ll be—“

Before Gina could finish, Claire had dug out a dollar and twenty six cents in exact change and slapped it on the counter. Then she turned on her sneaker tread and walked away.

“Ma’am—you forgot your coffee,” Gina called out.

*

Claire circled the parking lot twice before finding a space. Twenty-three reps on the ab-ad machine in 30 seconds. A new world’s record. All those ins-and-outs with toes flexed had given her cramps in her instep. But worth the suffering. Especially it if it meant a latté from Starbucks. She had deprived herself long enough, drinking that spartan Wawa coffee. Today she’d up the order to a grande and ask that college boy with wispy blonde hair for extra whipped cream. What was his name again? Jason? No, it was Jayce. An adorable name—suited him perfectly. Today she’d find out whether it was a nickname or his given name. He’d said he was a college student. Her heart thumped, and her tongue touched her bottom lip. College students always used the library.

Author’s note: “Love at the Wawa” was my first published story by The Duck & Herring Co.’s Pocket Field Guide in 2006.

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