El Cerrito Hills, California
“Sometimes, people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.”
~ Fredrich Nietzsche, German philosopher
“Coffee shops should never lose their place in American culture,” I said to the young woman working curbside pickup. She had hair dyed blue, teal and purple, and a nose-ring.
She nodded. “I suppose. They do more for society than people realize.”
“They’re about so much more than coffee. The art of writing in café’s has helped many creative pursuits.”
The woman laughed while rolling her eyes, “Tell me about it! I wrote my dissertation here! I owe my Ph.D. to this place.” She sighed. “Now, if only the hiring freeze will let up so I can use my education.” She pursed her lips in exasperation.
I had parked at the Golden Gate Grind and she had carried my order to my car. Three iced lattes. Anna and Julie were on their way to my house for lunch. A little girl-time while George and Tyler are on a bike ride.
“I’m feeling grateful my favorite local coffee shop is open,” I said.
“I appreciate having this job to help me pay back my student loans,” she countered in a desperate tone. Then she told me the pandemic has resulted in the café operating on a razor-thin margin and laying off employees, possibly closing indefinitely.
“I can’t imagine life without coffee shops or bookstores,” I mumbled while placing the box of lattes on the passenger-side floor. I fretted about my child’s future with Earth and humanity disappearing with each passing day. “I can think of certain non-essential businesses we might consider banning for good.”
“Gun stores. What do we need weapons for, other than killing people and all the creatures on our planet?”
She pondered this as she stroked her chin. “Hmm… I suppose. But we’re a free country. We shouldn’t have to close gun shops to not worry about getting shot every time we go out.” And with that, the Ph.D. barista turned to get the next customer’s order.
Free country. Her cliché lingered in the air making me wonder if she dumbed-down her thesis to fit such a narrative. Was she here the day of the mass shooting? Where I sat with friends’ moments before four people were gunned down. My eyes fixed on the exact spot—the spacious outdoor patio with its bright red-orange umbrellas and sprawling views of the San Francisco Bay.
Then I thought of the young children across our nation slaughtered in classrooms. The threat to my child’s life with the ideology we are “free” to carry guns wounded me far more than any gun could.
As I backed out of the parking lot, nostalgia assuaged nerves, and I remembered all the times I came here with Tyler in a stroller. Images flashed. But instead of a baby carriage, my son soon heads for college, a cup of java in his own hand.
Five minutes later, I dashed into my house. While cooking hors d’oeuvresmy eyes landed on the espresso machine which reminded me; the purpose of stopping at the Golden Gate Grind wasn’t coffee. The same wistfulness I’d felt pulling away from the café were the same pensive memories that drew me into the curbside pickup. Early motherhood. Family love. Life… and near death all wrapped into one place.
The scents of garlic and rosemary drifted through my kitchen. I took the rosemary-goat cheese pitas out of the oven while reflecting on the event that tainted the precious reminiscences in the café. The young gunman’s desolate eyes still haunt me and how buried in technology he was, sitting in the cold, windy corner. The Google Glass hanging off his head reminded me of night vision goggles he may have worn as a soldier. The effect was dehumanizing. He resembled the old Lockheed Martin building I remember from Silicon Valley—a windowless box with just a number painted in its corner and a forest of electronic antennas twisting from its roof. But with a glossy sales spin reflected through the boy’s piercingly beautiful eyes.
“Smells good in here!” Julie’s voice broke my reverie, which was just as well since I vowed to shut the shooting out of my mind. She placed an ornate, flowery dish with crackers and cheese on the counter.
“I brought wine from my last trip to Burgundy,” Anna said while handing me a bottle of Beaujolais.
“Before we partake in fine wine, I have iced lattes,” I said. “Vanilla for Anna, turmeric for Jules and a chamomile strawberry for me.”
We carried our lattes into my living room. Despite the expansive view being wrapped in a light blanket of fog, the city skyline, bridges, peaks of hills and islands shone through with a mystical quality that soothed our senses. The blood red sun steaked beams of orange across the sky, reflecting off the bay like a watercolor painting.
“I smell vanilla,” Anna said while dipping her nose toward her coffee.
“Oops! I almost forgot!” I ran to the oven and removed three tiny porcelain souffle dishes, Anna at my heels.
“Crème brûlée!” She exclaimed. “Great job baking my favorite dessert.”
My heart sank. “I think I may have burned it under the broiler. Here’s why I prep everything in advance, I can’t talk and cook at the same time.”
My Parisian friend assured me, “No, it’s perfect! It’s best with burned cream. You don’t even need to torch it.”
Julie came into the kitchen, “Looks great. Let’s carry the food outside and sit at your bistro table.”
We brought the Turkish spiced meatballs, smoked salmon, and other finger foods to my front patio. “Hope you girls weren’t expecting a full meal for lunch,” I said.
“Are you kidding, there’s too much food for us. These appetizers are amazing, and it’s all homemade!” Julie complimented.
“My husband and son will appreciate leftovers after their long ride,” I say as I glanced at Julie and see a different phone case in her hand. “New iPhone, Jules?
“No… Sean got his old cell phone back from the police. We breezed through messages piecing together the puzzle of his getting shot. There’re ones where he’s working enormous deals for a Saudi Arabian account.” Julie rapidly tapped and swiped her fingers over the screen.
“Business as usual in Silicon Valley, Jules. Without knowing it, many tech execs financially link to rebel networks in Saudi Arabia,” I said.
“No shit, Caryssa. The man I love nearly got killed over this ‘business-as-usual.’ You need not remind me.” Julie’s tone was bitter, and I bit my lip.
Anna lifted her cup and pointed to the custom logo on the jacket as if to change the topic or resonate with our own ordeal. An icon of the same bridge flashed its beauty from where we sat under my bistro umbrella. “You bought our coffees at the Golden Gate Grind, Caryss.”
We fell silent. Julie nodded, comprehension dawning in her eyes. No words necessary.
“Go ahead Jules, tell us about the messages,” I encouraged.
She took a deep breath, her thumb landing on a selected email. “I won’t read all these, but you can imagine they’re like the text message I found after they shot Sean. But look at this from the Saudi guy:
From: Ahmad bin Talden <[email protected]>
To: Sean Coleman <[email protected]!.com>
Sent: Fri, 05 Oct 2018 11:13:19 (PCT)
Subject: Global Arms Deals
I’ve been working on something with university labs for the past couple of weeks.
You need to expedite the next shipment of smart guns into Saudi Arabia ASAP. Crown is counting on you. We’ll lose traction without the revenue stream. Call me.
“Yikes. Sean was in deep,” Anna commented.
I wanted to reiterate this has been the status quo for the U.S. since at least the 90s. I blurted, “We need to stop making a killing off killing; stop supplying the world with the tools of demons.”
Julie placed her hands on the table, palms down, and looked at them. “I don’t know what’s real anymore,” she stuttered. “All I know is I’ve been saying to Sean we need to leave the States.”
“What? You and Sean would move out of the country?” I shrieked. Anna didn’t look surprised, and I realized she’d been holding back. “Jules, tell Caryss the good news.”
“Sean has a buyer for the house. We accepted an offer.”
“Wow, excellent. I hope Sean got what he was aiming for in selling price,” I said.
“He got almost four times the investment he made nearly two decades ago on the property.” Julie ate a few bites of smoked salmon with rosemary. “I think it’s time to open the wine for a toast.”
While uncorking the Beaujolais, I realized Sean got at least $18 to $20 million for his house. Through the open window, I hear Julie talking faster and faster, like a sparkler that flares up one last time before it goes out. “He’s transforming his customer base, focused on disaster recovery and clean energy. He’ll use his technology and funding for human rights orgs, universities, environmental health agencies—causes like that.”
After carrying three glasses of wine to the bistro area, we toasted. “To selling the house, and Sean’s new moral ventures,” I proclaimed. “This must be healthy for Sean’s emotions, too—that his work will be used for the social good.”
Julie beamed, her mysteriously, almost impossibly white teeth gleaming in the sunshine. “You’d appreciate a comment Sean made, Caryss. He said he wants his technology used to help people like firefighters, not warfighters. He’s going to help the cash-strapped universities, so their research focuses away from the lords of war. He told students he understands why they’d be tempted to follow the dark money, like he did. But warned them not to take the bait. It can get them killed.”
“Terrific!” I said. “This kind of stuff gives me hope for transforming our economy into one of peace. But now you’re moving out of the country Sean’s trying to save for the rest of us.”
Julie’s eyes narrowed into an expression I didn’t recognize. Her face changed. Her jaw stood out prominently, nostrils wide. Her lips formed a thin line. “We won’t actually be moving away. I was embellishing emotions. We still have Sean’s properties in Tahoe and the city. But… we no longer feel safe in the USA.”
Julie told us about how Chris Helm showed up at Sean’s house, flinging his gun around and threatening he’ll be a target again if he continues trying to persuade our institutions to pull out of Pentagon money.
“Crown can’t get elected again,” I said in a lame attempt to smooth the edges. I took a sip of the smooth French wine, its red-berry flavors delighting my palate while Julie’s next words reiterated the cold-harsh truth.
“It wouldn’t matter. Crown would still be here. And the next guy to replace him? He’s just as backed by the military powerbrokers threatening our lives for Sean’s brilliant technology.”
The veracity of her words hung in the balmy air, like a dirty wet rag. “The Dance of Power,” I said. I thought about how despite my best career years being in the technology sector, I see how certain shady, unnecessary technology is controlling our lives today. How can we solve our nation’s biggest problems when they exist in an omnipresent global power vacuum?
“But Sean has leverage,” Julie continued. “And he’s no longer keeping it a secret. He has a codename for a underground mission gone bad… and still going bad today albeit without Sean’s precision technology being used.”
“Codename?” I swirled my wine, examining it as if the crimson liquid held the key to untie all the loose ends.
“Springnest,” Julie said. "Sean finally decided to show the incriminating documents to researchers and business leaders across the nation in hope to shock them into stopping our dirty dance of power.”
“A potential resolution!” I said with optimism in my voice. I could feel myself relax into an overall feeling of hope for our kid's futures. Ever since I realized we've taken STEM too deep into a Star Trek or Star Wars reality, I'm relieved Tyler has no desire to go that route as a career.
“At least we know the three men that came after Sean never will again,” Julie said.
“Tyler! You’re such a tall, handsome man now,” Anna excitedly said over my shoulder.
I turned to see my son carrying three bunches of gorgeous roses. A mix of coral, cream and red bloomed straight out of his hands. “Hi ladies, I brought you flowers.”
“You’re so sweet!” Julie and Anna said almost in unison.
In the background, Len’s Steal My Sunshine played, matching the bright, effervescent vibe of the boy I brought into this crazy world. My eyes watered, and my heart leaped beyond the boundaries of what I thought was humanly possible.
“Thank you, Tyler. Where’s dad?”
“I dropped him off at Jim’s. They’re watching the football game. I’ll put these roses in water.” Tyler turned to go into the house.
“Tyler, wait!” Anna called. “We have to get over the bridge to pick up Jared from work, so Julie and I have to leave. We’ll take those beautiful flowers you so graciously bought for us now, thank you.”
An hour later I stood in front of the vibrant roses Tyler placed into my favorite crystal vase and bent to smell them. My heart overflowed with the knowledge my 17-year-old kid used his own cash and picked out these roses on his own. I knew exactly where they’d go; the “Paris bedroom.” Paris, the city of love where Tyler was conceived.
I lifted the vase and carried it into our guest room, then placed it on the dresser between the Paris mural and Anna’s replica of Picasso’s Child with Dove. I stared into the reproduced painting of Tyler, and back to those flowers—and saw with full conviction that the human compassion and child’s love Picasso tried to convey through this painting was instilled in my own child’s heart.
I can’t change the world. But I can shape the next generation and hope they make an impact.
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