By J.E. Sumerau
Two dollars and twenty-five cents.
That’s what I think each time I walk through the door.
I was twenty-five years old. I was in college. I was living in an apartment that was far too nasty to be barely affordable. I was two years from publishing my first short story. I had to pick and choose which nights to go without dinner or tag along with friends or family to eat free. I was gaining fast food weight, forgetting what well rested felt like, and thinking about the gun hidden under my bed too often. I was putting down haphazard scribbles that would someday become my first two novels. I felt the pain in my face and legs, but not much else.
Metro was the oasis, the one soft space I could feel whole for a while.
I would pay two dollars and twenty-five cents for a cup of coffee with unlimited refills.
I would limp across the hardwood floors to one of the green booths by the window.
I would spend hours doing homework, reading, or trying to write.
I even learned to play chess.
I never got very good at it.
I might have tipped a quarter or even a dollar when I could spare it, when I still had enough left for some fries or a sandwich or a mostly water cup of noodles.
That was fifteen years ago.
It feels like another life.
“Let me get a Jedi, hot, with almond milk,” I tell the cute guy with the brown hair, dimples, and easy smile.
This was the drink I stretched my budget for to celebrate milestones.
Now, I get it on each visit.
“To go, right,” the cute guy asks while washing out the steel milk jug.
I nod. He goes to work. I turn around, the long wooden bar at my back. I stare at the wall of windows where green booths used to stand. I learned to write well enough for publication in those booths. Now, there are stools below a long, slender built in table four feet off the ground. A man sits at the end of the line. He has gray hair and a book about birds. I saw him every day back then. I remember when he quit smoking. I still know his name.
Two dollars and twenty-five cents.
Metro, a coffeehouse and pub combo, quiet in the day, raucous at night, closed on Sundays.
Back then, I worked at a cheap hotel on Washington Road. I did the night shift. In the morning, I drove to the Summerville neighborhood to attend classes at Augusta University. It was called something else at the time. I prefer the new name. I hoped the classes would translate into a better life, better writing at least. After class, I fought through sleep to drive downtown. I always parked on Broad Street. I walked across Eleventh. I came through the front door. There was a stage to the right. It arrived just before I started college. There were tables and chairs to the left. There are wooden booths there now. I would walk past the pool table that isn’t there anymore. I would think about the Saturday morning Bluegrass concerts. The singer had a voice like a superstar. There were always four coffee canisters on the wooden bar. It was self-serve. I paid my fee, got my ceramic cup, and slid into a booth. It felt like a break from the work, class, sleep, depression, suicidal thoughts, repeat pattern I called life.
It only cost a couple bucks and a bit of lost sleep.
I hand the guy with the dimples my card.
I pay five dollars or so, plus a tip of at least one hundred percent, five times what I could afford in the old days.
It feels important to be able to do this.
It feels like a victory.
Now, I work at a fancy private liberal arts college eight hours south. I come back to Augusta and other parts of Georgia and South Carolina to talk about books and visit with loved ones. I come back to remember when all I had was two dollars and twenty-five cents, dreams, and constant, chronic pain. I carry these ghosts along the backroads, interstates, and dirt tracks I once called home. I still come through the front door. There is still a stage to the right. I still get the fancy drink to celebrate. I can almost see the worn out notebooks with coffee stained pages. I can almost feel the pain in my face, emptiness in my stomach, and weight on my joints. I hold my to-go cup, a relic of the past embedded somewhere in my present.
I end each visit the same way.
I leave through the backdoor, the one I rarely ever paid attention to back then.
I walk out into downtown.
I stroll past shops, new and longstanding, open and closed.
I think about what changes, what stays the same.
You cannot smoke inside anymore. That difference always strikes me. The green booths disappeared years ago. I like to think they found a nice home on a farm upstate. The coffee canisters are behind the counter. I make sure to smile at them each time I order. Most of the people I remember are nowhere to be found. I wonder where they went. There is more outdoor seating. I used it for a scene in my second novel.
Metro is not the same.
But it is.
I am not the same.
And yet, on some level, I am.
J.E. Sumerau is a social psychologist and the director of applied sociology at the University of Tampa. They are also the author of 6 novels published with academic presses, and two of these novels, Homecoming Queens and Palmetto Rose, were finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
They have also published short stories in the Sandhills Literary Magazine, The So Fi Zine, and The Sociological Review. For more information, please visit www.jsumerau.com, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.