And here’s the next little bit. Still figuring out the setting while trying to make connections between Greggory’s experience and experiences I’ve had being a “black face in a white space”. This one stems from SO MANY TIMES being the only black guy with the feeling of “you don’t belong here” heavy in the air.
Oliver’s Cafe had a strawberry and cheese danish that made Gregg salivate just thinking about it. In the long weeks and months that followed his transformation, it was one of the things on a small list that he brought to mind whenever he needed something to look forward to. Under quarantine, his diet was restricted to little more than hay and various vegetables — he could eat them, but they weren’t very appetizing.
The doctors and scientists discovered that it wasn’t just the features that were a mixture of animal and man; his palate and nutritional needs had changed as well. He was technically still an omnivore, but his stomach frequently revolted a meat-rich meal and he found the smell of cooked flesh alarming, almost disgusting. Over time, once the shock of his new body had worn off, he found he preferred vegetables and fruits; a little bit of dairy here and there; and a powerful craving for sugar. Six months ago, Greggory had never been one for sweets. Now, he couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
The cafe was on Calvert St., right on the way to work. Greggory would stop there every morning to pick up a large cup of coffee and a danish, and this was his first day back. As he squeezed out of his small coupe and made his way across the small parking lot towards the little row of shops Oliver’s was nestled between, he felt himself tensing. This was supposed to be a small step towards normalcy, the first brick placed to put his life back in order. When he opened the door, he realized it simply wouldn’t be that simple.
A sea of faces turned to stare at him. The room went quiet except for the folk-rock playing over tinny speakers. Greggory felt the burn of thirty pairs of eyes all centered on him; half the expressions were surprise, even shock — the other half looked vaguely displeased. He had to imagine all of them were wondering what he was doing here.
Greggory smiled and lifted a hand. He waved clawed fingers at the gathered, and made his way in. He had no idea how he looked, but he wished more than anything people would stop staring at him. He was used to being the only man of his kind in one of these spaces, or so he thought; here, the difference burned at him, seeped into his skin in a way that made him feel acutely self-conscious. He felt like a foreign element contaminating the purity of a scene.
The tightness in his chest didn’t ease when the barista smiled at him and asked, “Hey, what can I get started for you?”
He pulled out the tablet tucked under an arm and opened his writing app. His pointer claw acted as a natural stylus, but it still felt strange dragging the point of it over his screen. It wasn’t something he thought he could ever get used to, even though his doctor swore he would. At least, until he relearned how to speak.
<<It’s Gregg.>> He wrote, then showed it to the barista.
Her eyes flashed with recognition, surprise, and sympathy in the span of a second. “Oh! Greggory, hey!! It’s so good to see you!” Other workers behind the counter glanced in his direction when they heard the name. Some smiled weakly and nodded, some went quickly back to work, their expressions unreadable. “I’m so sorry about…” Her voice trailed off, suddenly unsure.
<<It’s OK. I’m fine. Hope you’re fine too.>>
“Oh yeah, I’m good! It’s gotten a lot busier here since they finally finished the construction.” The barista glanced behind him, and her smile faded. “What can I get you?”
Greggory flicked an ear behind him and heard one…three…four people shuffling in line. He couldn’t see their expressions, but he didn’t need to. His chest felt tighter. He wiped his app and started writing quickly.
“What’s that floating in the air?”
“I think that’s fur.”
“OK, that’s gross.”
He tried to ignore that as he wrote, flattening his ears against his head to keep from hearing any more. <<I’d like a large coffee, two sugar, three cream. And a strawberry danish.>>
The barista — her name was Karen, according to her name tag, and Greggory felt a small pang of shame for not remembering — smiled at him, glanced at the line, and nodded. “I got you. Is that for here or to go?”
“I hope it’s to go,” someone said behind him, a little louder.
Greggory’s ear flicked up of its own accord, and his nervousness soured into anger. He was tempted to tell her that it would be for here, damned being late for work, and then sit in the middle of the cafe. He’d pour his coffee into a saucer and lick it up like a God-damned animal, lift up his shirt to scratch his furry belly, pluck out loose hairs and let them flow in the air…
Karen gave him a friendly and sympathetic smile, and it lightened his mood a little. “OK. Just hang on and your order will be waiting for you at the end of the bar.”
Greggory stepped out of line and waited near the condiments. He could feel the eyes of people in line on him, saw people look up from where they were seated as he passed by. He did his best to ignore them, kept his ears folded, but he couldn’t help but hear the conversation of the next person in line.
“So you’re serving those animals in here now, huh?” The man was tall and white, with grey hair and blue eyes that looked down a strong, proud nose. Greggory imagined himself punching it.
“He’s a paying customer here, just like you are.” Karen’s voice had a hard edge that he had never heard before. “What do you want?”
“Nothing, with that attitude. I’ll get my coffee somewhere else.” The man turned to leave. “Your manager will be getting a call from me.”
The man glared at Greggory as he left. Greggory did his best to look anywhere else but at him.
“Here’s your coffee dude.” Another barista slipped a cup towards him, along with his pastry. “I gave you two pastries because…you know. Welcome back.”
Something in Greggory’s heart broke open. He perked his ears, stared at the young, skinny Indian man across the counter, and nodded. He couldn’t say how much he appreciated it, but he hoped the other man knew it just the same.
He walked briskly to his car, opened the door and tossed his pastries into the passenger seat. He barely managed to fumble the keys into the ignition before tears started to flow. It took him ten minutes before his vision cleared enough that he trusted himself leaving the parking lot.