In the lobby of the Bay Gardens Hotel, they served complimentary coffee. The carpet in the lobby was plush and felt nice on bare feet. I noticed this mark of luxury right before I had the sudden and inexplicable impulse to dump one of these free cups of coffee onto a stranger’s head. The carpet was also red.
A lot of people were staying at the hotel for a convention of some sorts. All around me, feet dragged and blazers hung wearily on barely awake bodies. I was there on my honeymoon and didn’t understand why everyone seemed so morose.
I had just come in from a brisk walk down by the boats while my wife—I hadn’t grown tired of this new title—napped upstairs. I took off my sandals as soon as I entered the lobby. When my foot touched the floor, the carpet felt how I imagine walking on clouds must feel like. A fly landed on my neck, but I made no effort to shoo it away. I wondered if soft skin feels like carpet to a fly.
The concierge noticed me walking in and gestured to the coffee pot on his right. He smiled constantly but never showed his teeth and I thought that was weird. Still, I decided to pick up one of the paper shot glasses as an afternoon pick-me-up. The size of the cups reminded me that charity and generosity are not the same thing and “complimentary” usually implies the former. I filled my cup in under two seconds, took in the whiff of brewed beans, and moved toward the elevator. Then, in a moment of charity, I decided to get an extra cup for my wife. With my sandals in one hand and my own cup in the other, this proved tricky. But I loved her. The concierge observed me with suspicion.
“This one is for my wife.” I nodded at the second cup, which I held precariously in the same hand as my sandals.
He cocked his head to the side.
“She’s asleep upstairs, my wife is,” I continued. “This will make her day. My wife loves coffee in the afternoon.”
He smiled—still no teeth—and gestured with an open hand toward the elevator. I nodded and returned his smile, making a point to show my teeth.
Eleven steps past the concierge’s desk, I saw the stranger. She sat on one of the benches opposite the elevators, entirely oblivious to my existence. Waiting for a ride upstairs, I stood close enough to hear her fingernail flicking against her phone’s screen. She was dressed, not in the business casual attire of the conference-goers, but in the trappings of a tourist—jean shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals not that different from my own. The desire to pour coffee on her head was simultaneously strong and disturbing. I felt like a child who, despite having been warned by adults not to touch the stove, still reaches for the red surface. Just to see what it feels like.
At the instant of the coffee temptation, two things happened. One, my hand twitched—as if trying to act on its own accord—and some coffee slipped over the edge onto my finger. And two, the hot liquid against my skin warned me to what I was about to do and froze me where I stood. The attempted autonomy of my flesh caught me off guard. I checked to see if the stranger had noticed anything strange about me—the partially-buttoned floral shirt, fedora, and fanny-pack being the least of my concerns.
But instead of seeing her, I made eye contact with the bald eagle soaring across her shirt. The eagle and I regarded one another as adversaries. The bird’s eyes taunted me while I felt my own vacillate between fear and aggression. The black coffee would stain the bird’s white head, I thought. The closest elevator stopped on the seventh floor.
To my left, a man pulled back and forth at a button on his shirt to fan his chest. There must have been a break in the conference because blustering businessmen started streaming into the hallway. The sweaty man looked like someone who knew how to punch a person. But as I wondered if he would come to the stranger’s defense after my assault, an entirely different man walked directly into me, and I found myself suddenly wearing the coffee I had carried.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“That’s okay,” he replied, “my phone is dry.”
“Good, good. So sorry.”
He continued walking and tapping his phone’s screen with his head down.
The stranger smiled at me.
I had been assumed that a scalding cup of coffee to the scalp would cause serious injury. Now that I felt the liquid melting down my chest, I was sure of it. The stranger got up and walked over to me.
“Here,” she took the half-empty cups and threw them in a nearby trash can. “Some people are the worst,” she said.
Before I could respond, she walked past me to the table that held the coffee. I watched as she poured three cups. She looked over her shoulder to where I stood and motioned with her head for me to join her. I walked to her and she handed me two full cups of coffee—she had loaded the gun for her own execution—and picked up the third for herself.
“To the charity of the concierge,” she said. We tapped paper cups. The concierge nodded and smiled.
Although she was now armed with her own steaming cup, a blitzkrieg attack would likely prevent any possible retaliation. I looked down and realized my chest matched the carpet. I needed my wife to put some ice on it. I heard the ding of an elevator’s arrival.
A few moments later I stood on the elevator with two empty paper cups and a wife awaiting my return. I don’t know why.
Cover photo by Jon Tyson.