There is an art to it, like getting ready for a date. For at least thirty minutes, after the shower, she will do her hair and makeup and assemble an outfit that looks young and thrown together yet not ridiculous on a 67-year-old woman. Maybe a high-waisted jean and an old sweatshirt. Not the one with Yellowstone Park on it, because it screams touristy, but maybe the 1987 U.S. Open one because vintage. She knows it’s vintage because her granddaughter, who lives in Tucson and who she only sees once a year, tried to walk off with it over Christmas holiday. But sometimes vintage is too self-aware, like one is trying too hard. That’s what Azrael at the Starbucks says, anyway.
She decides on a dark blue crewneck cable-knit sweater. She wore it last Thursday but she figures it’s a long enough time, six days, for Azrael not to remember it. She tops it off with a scuffed pair of Tretorn sneakers, a pair back from when they were popular in the eighties, before they became popular again (also something her granddaughter would have tried to make off with if her feet weren’t a size larger).
The trick is to pretend she is still here for something. She always brings a book, a fat hardcover from the library with a dust jacket, one she can rest her readers or even her coffee on as she walks evenly, unconcerned, across the coffee shop at the hospital to one of the overstuffed chairs overlooking the atrium. She gets there early, before anyone else can lay claim to the overstuffed chairs, and then she leaves the aforementioned big hardcover on the seat when she ducks into the bathroom a few hours into her stay. Although she’s always careful, before she leaves, she cleans up carefully—no spilled coffee no wet rings on low table before her, no napkin trapped in the couch cushions. She makes sure Azrael sees her leave and says goodbye, and then she goes home and waits until the next day, her nocturnal thoughts filled with outfits, shoe pairings, conversation starters, for when she does it again.
“I know you,” Azrael had said at the counter one day a few months before.
“You do?” At the time, she was neither flattered nor irritated. Merely surprised. “From the morning show?”
“No.” Azrael’s expression went flat, smooth, like pancake batter spreading across the pan. Her eyelids fluttered in confusion. “I mean, I’ve waited on you before.”
“I’ve been visiting my son,” she’d explained.
She didn’t know what else to say. Cirrhosis seemed like too much information, and yet she hoped Azrael understood that her son wasn’t a doctor, but a patient. Then, when she tried to insert her Amex in the credit card reader, Azrael put her hand over it.
“My treat.” Azrael smiled. “I hope your son feels better soon.”
“Thank you for the drink, and sympathy,” she’d said, putting her card away. As she searched Azrael’s nametag for her name, she frowned slightly. “Your name—it’s quite unusual. Did your parents have a…did they…?”
“My name?” Azrael tilted her nametag toward her eyes, as if she’d forgotten it herself. “Azrael. Yeah, my mom named me after that cat on the Smurfs. You know that ugly-ass orange cat?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I don’t.”
She’d wondered at the time whether Azrael knew the actual origins of her name. (Azrael’s mother certainly could not have known.) She imagined Azrael would find the real meaning of her name much more interesting than that “ugly-ass orange cat,” but she didn’t feel it was her place to bring it up. And, on that particular day, she hadn’t particularly cared. Jason, her son, would be done with his dialysis soon, and she’d join him back in his hospital room, watching the excruciating banality of afternoon television that served as a distraction from the excruciating lack of things they had to say to each other. There was what she knew—that she and her husband had sent Jason to the best schools, bought him the finest clothes, two sports cars, countless stints in rehab—and what she didn’t know—why he threw it all away, time and time again. Why he hated her. Why she still cared.
The next time she’d visited the coffee shop, Azrael had waved at her from behind the counter when she arrived. She blushed. It felt well, not scandalous, but something. People who didn’t recognize her, who were too young to remember that eighties morning show in the San Diego television market didn’t wave to her, didn’t speak to her.
“Tall drip coffee, two creams, two sugars?” Azrael held up an empty cup from behind the counter as she got in line. She nodded. She marveled, in a darkly humorous way, that Azrael said more to her already that morning than Jason. She pondered what to ask Azrael when she got to the front, for her to know she was grateful for the warmth, that she was capable of reciprocation.
“So many different coffees.” The words felt like huge marbles in her mouth as she stuck her credit card in the reader. “I don’t know how you can remember all of them.”
“It gets easier over time.” Azrael shrugged.
“That’s why—I only order drip coffee,” she’d explained, picking up the conversation baton that Azrael dropped and trying again. “I just…don’t know what else to try.”
“You like iced coffee?” Azrael’s eyes became large and animated when she talked. “You should try a Frappuccino then.”
The next time, she did. It was almost Halloween then, and she’d ordered a pumpkin spice.
“How’s your son doing?” Azrael had asked when she’d pushed the large frozen drink across the counter.
“He’s okay.” It had been a couple of weeks. She wondered if Azrael thought he was getting chemo. Sometimes she’d see other patients, their heads soft and round like shrunken grapes, moving slowly, like drips from melting icicles, around the atrium, as if they were solar panels that just needed to be recharged. “Here’s hoping he’ll be discharged soon.”
“You’ll come back and see me, though?” Azrael smiled. Her teeth were strong, blindingly white, not like Jason’s. Jason, who she’d have to send to her dentist for some caps when he was discharged. If he was discharged.
“Of course I’ll come back.” She’d smiled. She’d caught a glimpse of her reflection in the display case and felt her face pucker in revulsion—a big, loopy scarf, the kind older women used to hide their turkey necks. A pale blue sweater set. Black poly-wool-blend trousers. All she needed was a pillbox hat, she thought, and she’d look like British royalty. Azrael probably thought she was an old, doddering fool. Azrael, meaning, she realized, the rest of the world.
The next time she’d come back, wearing a tunic she’d ordered from J. Crew (a store her own fortysomething daughter still frequented), she pointed to the “Now Playing” CD case on the corner of the counter, asked Azrael if she liked the artist.
“Taylor Swift?” Azrael shrugged her shoulders. “She’s okay.” Then, as if remembering something, she fetched her phone out of her back pocket and slid it across the counter. “But this is the bomb.”
She glanced at the screen. “Run This Town” by Rhianna.
“Give me your digits,” Azrael said. “And I’ll text it to you.”
“How will I play a song on my phone?” She shook her head. She used her phone for the most basic of things—to make calls, to check the weather.
“Here—I’ll take my break.” Azrael glanced over her shoulder. “Rafe, I’m taking my break.”
They sat on the loveseat, Azrael close enough that she could feel Azrael’s breath on her arm. She smelled like sugar, but also cologne. Something fruity, the citrus of it cutting into her nostrils. Azrael’s knee bumped softly into hers as it bounced up and down to the imaginary music in her head.
“I put some, you know, classic stuff, too—Nina Simone. Ella Fitzgerald. Diana Ross,” she explained, as she scrolled through the musical selections. “And I texted myself from your phone, So now I can text you.”
Text what? She’d wondered. At the time, Jason was not thriving. He’d need a liver transplant, although he didn’t qualify for one. Not yet. Not for many years, at least. He wouldn’t make it that long. She’d already called Jason’s sister, Jackie, to fly back home.
But she’d thought about it–texting. She didn’t have many friends these days, not since Conrad died and she stopped going to the club. Her relationship with daughter, Jackie, and her granddaughter was estranged, for reasons even she wasn’t sure she understood. And Jason hung over her like a shadow–she cringed at the thought of old friends asking about him. Whereas she’d once enjoyed being recognized in public, now she worried that people saw her and thought of Jason, Jason whose minor celebrity had eclipsed her own for a few years, back when he was on that reality show.
Azrael didn’t know any of these things. If she did, she never brought them up. Sometimes Azrael would text her a photo on her day off—the day she went to Disneyland with friends, or La Jolla Cove. Her dancing to a song, her moves fluid, like water down a windshield, before transitioning into something twitchy, jerky, like a machine. She would respond, short but encouraging replies: “Marvelous!” “Say hello to Mickey for me.”
She’d thought about texting Azrael back on the day that Jason died, but she didn’t know what to say. She could barely open her mouth without howling. Instead, toward the evening, before she took a Xanax and climbed into bed, she sent Azrael a picture of an orange cat that she’d caught sitting on the patio wall. She’d thought maybe it was Azrael, in bewitched form, coming to check on her. Or maybe, she thought much later, in shame, maybe it had been Jason. A few days before he died, she’d been flipping through the channels, tired of Judge Judy and The Doctors and Access Hollywood, when she’d happened upon the cartoon.
“It’s Azrael!” She exclaimed brightly, turning back to look at Jason. “Azrael from the Starbucks.”
“Who the fuck is Azrael?” He’d murmured. Already his skin was jaundiced, poison swimming in his blood, his mind. “The angel of death works at Starbucks?”
Or maybe the cat on the patio simply was the angel Azrael, reminding her that he’d come through town, done his business, was heading out now, cheerio.
Azrael had finally texted her back, at some ungodly hour, the following: AZRAEL! 😺
It’s been weeks since she’s needed to come to the hospital, but every day, she still makes the drive down I-5 toward Hillcrest, pays eight dollars for hospital parking, and heads to the coffee shop. She’s almost made it through every coffee on the entire menu. But sometimes she wonders if this is enough—the primping, the outfits, the library books, the stolen minutes of Azrael’s time—to keep herself from disappearing. To keep herself from becoming trapped in that place in which you become wholly invisible to everyone but yourself, moving around in a hamster ball, unable to hear or touch. Unable to stop your own momentum if you find you’ve rolled the wrong way.
She thought about it this morning as she tied her Tretorn sneaker. She wasn’t delusional; she didn’t expect her family, what was left of them, to meet Azrael. She didn’t imagine she would meet Azrael’s family, either, or go ocean kayaking with Azrael’s friends at La Jolla Cove, but she thought there would be a small opening, a pinhole in the heavy curtains of her home, where some light could bleed into her life. Something she and Azrael could do together, aside from talking about Rhianna or deciding what syrup she should put in her cappuccino. Something outside of the hospital. Perhaps they could go to a museum, or a play. Perhaps Azrael could come over and she could make her a lemon meringue pie. She herself have a small piece—lord knows she’d had too many over the years—but press Azrael to take the rest home. It was the novelty of eating lemon meringue with someone else—not Conrad, not her children, not her friends. She could even tell Azrael about Jason. Maybe she’d like to see his record collection, take an album or two? She probably wouldn’t like the classic rock, or the punk, but maybe the jazz? If they found a moment of silence, she could tell Azrael about the origins of her name, explain what she thought was the cosmic significance of it all, the meaning.
At the last minute, she pulls off the blue crewneck (too preppy) and slips on an ivory-colored V-neck cashmere sweater. It exposes the ugly lines of her neck, but it also shows the firm, lightly muscled skin of her torso. She’s been working out, at home with a pair of Conrad’s old dumbbells. She thinks, unless it’s too soon, that maybe she could go take a fitness class somewhere. Someplace that makes her feel pain, reminds her she’s alive.
When she arrives at the Starbucks, Rafe mans at the counter. In lieu of waving, he nods.
“Where’s Azrael?” She asks, feeling her shoulders collapse underneath the cashmere. She centers her readers on her library copy of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. Not that she expects Azrael to let her know she’ll be calling in sick, but she has expectations that she will be here to see her. She thinks of the little beanie baby, an orange cat, she saw as she passed the gift shop and went back to buy. It rests, hidden, in the plastic bag beneath her library book. She will have to bring it back tomorrow, in this silly bag, like she planned it.
“She don’t work here no more.”
Before she can reply, Rafe flicks on the blender. She watches the cubes of ice splinter into slivers, disappearing in the cream before becoming an ivory froth, before pulling out her phone and texting Azrael: Rafe tells me you quit. This is a surprise!
While she waits (Azrael’s responses are neither immediate nor predictable), she wanders into the atrium area, among its slow-moving solar system of convalescents, and stares at her phone, at the dots that appear beneath her message, hopeful for a direction, a promise, an acknowledgment. She paces slowly back and forth, concentrating on her balance, worried she’ll faint or begin to cry.
Azrael’s response is so short that she misunderstands and waits longer, thinking Azrael is typing an addendum. But an addendum never comes. After a few minutes, longer, even, nothing populates on her screen after the word FREEDOM! 👍
“Did she say why she quit?” She asks Rafe after the morning rush. She’s hungry, irritable; still, she doesn’t order a coffee at the counter, preferring to lob questions to Rafe over the swinging door that separates the employee counter area from the rest of the shop.
“Dunno.” Rafe is a young man of few words. He rubs the prep counter with a damp towel. “People quit all the time.”
“But she was here for a while,” she argues, although she has no idea how long Azrael had worked there, other than the few months she’d known her.
“Not really.” Rafe looks up to the ceiling, as if calculating. “I been here eight months, and she started a few months after me.”
“Did she say why, or where she was going?” She knows she’s pressing her luck. She also has intuited that Rafe and Azrael weren’t the best of friends. Azrael had been far too liberal with her break time and often had slowed the line, with her intermittent humming and dreaminess, to a grinding halt (it makes the day go by faster, Azrael had once explained her theory, if you do everything as slowly as possible).
“I don’t know,” Rafe answers after a minute. “What, she didn’t tell you?”
She hears Rafe’s question in the declarative. She didn’t tell you. She understands now that she was merely part of Azrael’s theory to make the day go by faster. And all the pictures Azrael had texted? Performative. She thinks, with a wry smile, no different from the Christmas cards she’d send out by the hundreds, usually of a picture of the family skiing at Vail, or Tahoe. Something to remind people that her family was living their best lives.
She exits the Starbucks suddenly, so quickly even Rafe is startled, calling after her “don’t you want a coffee today?” She heads down to the parking lot and tosses the beanie baby, the library book, onto the passenger seat. What will she do tomorrow, the next day, and the next, to make the day go by faster? As she pulls out of the parking garage and heads towards I-5, she glances in the rearview mirror. He’s there, behind her, before she’s able to adjust her vision, confirm the emptiness of the back seat. Jason. It’s a different Jason every time: young Jason, four or five, at the San Diego Zoo, pulling off his shirt in front of the orangutan enclosure and wailing when she or Conrad tried to have him to put it back on. Jason at fourteen, passed out drunk on the swimming pool deck. Jason in sunglasses and a muscle shirt on that reality show, his hair cropped close, dyed with peroxide to hide his balding crown. Jason in the hospital room, his puffy, yellowed face and dark-rimmed eyes. Thirty-eight years ago, she’d birthed him in the same hospital, a small wrinkly thing. She had no idea what would become of him, but not this.
In her driveway in La Jolla, she stares at the house from the car. She knows what it, what everyone, sees: an old woman in very old sneakers.
My son died. She types in the text field to Azrael but does not send it. There are things she’ll never say to Azrael, just like there are things she’ll never say to Jason. When she’d asked him, years later, what he was thinking that day when he took off his shirt at the zoo, she was surprised that he remembered. I wanted to feel everything—the breeze, the sun, the sprinklers.
She pulls the silly beanie baby for Azrael out of the gift shop bag and holds it against her chest.
“You don’t feel anything,” she says. She climbs out of the car and kicks off the Tretorns. They fall on their sides in the driveway like roadkill. One has a hole in the back heel that blistered her ankle and drove her crazy. The asphalt, even at this hour of morning, is hot on her feet. She lies on the driveway, on her back, legs scissored out. This is where she will be when Louisa, her housekeeper, comes back from the store, when Louisa, whose front tires of her Kia braked inches from her head, calls the paramedics. Whom the paramedics will find, weeping, a blister on her ankle, a mild case of heat exposure, still very much alive.
© Jen Michalski
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Jen’s interview]