“It’s Not The Size”

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The last thing I expected to find in my latte was a penis. At first glance, I thought: Candlestick. But, no. Staring up at me from the top of my caffeinated beverage was a depiction of what my husband jokingly refers to as “Texas.” My latte had been adorned with an anatomically accurate representation of male genitalia.

Daily Grind employees, a rotating group of fresh-faced, female baristas, take pride in their foam art—usually hearts, tulips, and abstract paisley patterns. Mallory and Ashley remind me of my daughters—edgy, yet wholesome. But the day I found myself cradling a lewd latte, the face behind the gleaming copper espresso machine was decidedly male. A bedhead, Johnny Depp soul patch, young male.

Young, to me, means anyone under thirty-five. I may be 50+ years old, but at a dinky five-feet, zero inches (when I inhale), I transform back into a prepubertal middle schooler when I stand at coffee shop counters, all of them elevated like the pharmacy counters of old, as if height somehow correlates with the preciousness of the commodity being dispensed. As if my latte were, in some small way, something to be guarded. Dangerous.

As I paid for my order, I glanced out the window and spied my fiction teacher, Allison, getting out of her minivan. At this coffee shop, nestled in a gentrified neighborhood near the campus where I'm studying creative writing, it's not unusual to bump into one of my professors. As an older student (I prefer the term alternative), I find it awkward being taught by these instructors, all younger than I. Whenever I stumble upon Allison, the shine of her youthful exuberance highlights my soccer mom-ness.

My introversion lurking behind seemingly casual exchanges—How's your semester going? Great, how's yours?—I have the sense with Allison that we are, simultaneously, on equal footing and not. That even though we occupy very different rungs within the university's hierarchy, she sees me as somewhat of a peer, at least chronologically. When, bless their hearts, younger students, ink still wet on their undergrad diplomas, address Allison as “Professor Lynn,” I try not to smile. Allison may live and work on a literary tier infinitely higher than mine, but I am her elder. I'd no sooner call her Professor Lynn than I would call Charlie, my physician husband, Dr. Lerner.

When Johnny Depp called out Large Two Percent Latte For Here, I stretched up on my tiptoes to reach my drink, the trauma of my acne-studded ninth grade existence washing over me again. From my disadvantaged angle I couldn't get a full view of the top of my cup, and as I carefully edged it toward me I said, automatically, “It's beautiful!” I never miss an opportunity to support the arts.

It was only when I began to walk the narrow path between glass pastry case and patron-filled tables, staring down so as not to spill, that the image at the mouth of the mug began to sharpen. I stepped gingerly, holding the heavy vessel in front of my no-longer-hourglass waist, and it dawned on me that my beverage was X-rated. Those two swirls at the base of the circle of frothy milk? Those were no candlestick handles. They were dead ringers for testicles. The long, vertical shape that sprung from between them, what I had thought at first glance was a candle? Now, this shape was decidedly un-candle-like. I took note of the gently sloped dome mushrooming over its top, at its apex a tiny divot. Up ahead Allison waved hi, the underside of her arm moving in concert with her bicep.

Allison Lynn, still on the good side of forty, has to her name a novel, a writing award, and a teaching gig. A cloud of charm seems to encase her. I am happy enough with my life, aside from the typical petty complaints—a marriage not quite as romantic as it was twenty years ago, and teenage children who are, well, teenagers. But Allison, with her husband, a blonde, tousle-haired award-winning novelist, with her adorable three-year-old boy, with her understated Peter Pan collar blouse, seems different enough from me that one might consider her to be a separate species. Allison has panache, a preppy-tinged East Coast sensibility. I wear black pants with elastic waists. Genital latte aside, I would have just as soon avoided greeting Allison, the bird of shyness always flapping its wings deep in my throat. But there was no avoiding it; I had to walk right past her to get to the only empty table.

And what was I to make of the phallus in my drink? If I was still a twenty-something, I might be flattered. Perhaps penis foam art is a new form of courtship? But no, even though I deluded myself that I could pass for a woman twenty years younger, even I couldn't buy that this was a come-on. But if the penis wasn't a come-on, what was it? A joke to shock an old lady? Or did the young man perhaps think I was too elderly to pick up on the joke, my penis-viewing days far behind me, that I'd sip, oblivious?

Twenty-four ounces of liquid smut in my hands, flush with embarrassment and self-consciousness, I slowly made my way toward my teacher, cranking up my confidence. “Hi Allison,” I said as I neared her, a tiny knot of social anxiety hardening beneath my mom-waistband.

And then, operating purely on impulse, I showed Allison my beverage's penis. Lowering the mug I said, “Tell me what you see in my latte.”

“Wow,” she said. “It's kind of phallic.”

Allison will always be twenty years younger than me, but there's something about pornographic foodstuff that evens the playing ground.

“Weird, isn't it?” I said, returning the volley. I settled into the chair at my table, glanced at Allison and, blushing, lifted the cup to my lips.

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About Susan Lerner

Susan Lerner is a student in Butler's MFA in Creative Writing program. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, Monkeybicycle, Atticus Review, Bluestem, and The Believer Logger. Susan lives in Indianapolis with her husband, three teenagers, and dog, Mischief. In her spare time she posts book reviews at http://booklerner.blogspot.com and tumblrs at http://susanlerner.tumblr.com/



  • Carolyn

    It is interesting how two very different power dynamics play out here. The barista serves the customer an inappropriate drink for whatever reason he might give (but I’ll just call it a micro aggression, because that’s what it seems to be). Then, there is the age difference again but with another woman, who has a position of authority. Yet the student and woman seem to navigate those waters with more care. Sharing the latte art seems to confer some sort of solidarity as women. On either side of forty, being a woman is hard, no matter how together one may appear.