The way Rebbecca saw it, the popularity of Starbucks was a no-brainer. Even though she could not tell the difference between most of the flavors offered, and would never in all probability try the Pumpkin Spice Latté – except maybe just once to see what it was all about, she could nonetheless enjoy playing at being a coffee connoisseur for less than four dollars a pop. It was not a bad deal except that the sunny demeanor of the Baristas, or whatever it was they like to call themselves, was sometimes too much to deal with on her way back from work, or during the middle of the night when she could not sleep and did not want to stay in bed. At times such as these she did not want to see a smiley face, and she did not want to have to smile back. It was comforting to not have to pretend that life was anything but rough. Of course, she also preferred the smaller, family-owned coffee shops at the corner of every other street for a reason other than the aged, discourteous women who run such shops almost exclusively in the city: you could smoke there. Even after the several months since she had quit smoking she was still choosing places – perhaps by reflex – that had an ashtray at each table.
Sometimes the ashtray at her table would not be empty and the waitress who took her immutable order of "coffee. Black," would neglect to empty it. At other times there would be no ashtray at her table at all and the waitress, floating across the floor from table to table taking orders, cleaning up after patrons, and refilling drained cups of coffee would sweep one off the counter and place it absentmindedly in the center of her table, and sometimes this ashtray too would not be empty and the waitress would neglect to empty it. Of course, it did not matter to Rebbecca one way or another if there were an ashtray on her table or not, but she would remark its absence automatically as she sat down at the nearest vacant table when she entered and would notice as reflexively when the hole in the center of the table was filled.
Rebbecca liked to inspect the non-empty ashtrays and their contents in some detail. She sifted through the ash and cigarette butts with a toothpick or matchstick to turn them over and see what mark they bore, or separate them from one another and count how many there were, and of how many types. She would guess at how many people there had been, and how long they might have stayed and imagined the animated conversations they might have had over their coffee and cigarettes. She was delighted in particular when she found - somewhat rarely - a cigarette butt that bore the distinctive pair of golden-brown rings around a cigarette butt and she wondered if she shared more with the smoker than just taste in cigarettes; if they had the same taste in music and food and enjoyed the same kind of movies and read the same magazines. She would catch herself on these flights of fancy eventually and chuckle softly, chiding herself for daydreaming like a lovesick schoolgirl when she was neither.
She also liked to picture how the different cigarettes appeared to have been put out: that one was snuffed out half-smoked, like they left in a hurry and could not be bothered taking it along; these other ones had been rubbed out vigorously, perhaps angrily into the ashtray. How many were there? Three, no, five, five of these and only two of the others, but these two were also put out in the same deliberate manner. So this one did all the talking, eh? What had they talked about?
"More coffee?" She was forced out of her reverie by the automaton of a woman that ran the place and now stood looking down at her with dull, disinterested eyes. Rebbecca looked up at her and the steaming pot of coffee she held expectantly and took a few seconds to nod her reply. The old woman filled up her cup and plodded back to her seat behind the counter.
Rebbecca returned her attention to the ashtray. Even though she had already found everything there was of interest and knew it, she held out hope for her most prized catch of them all: a cigarette butt with a lipstick stain on it. She could always tell from the texture and the color and the way it had rubbed off onto the cigarette butt that it was lipstick and not some beverage. She was pleased even more when the lipstick stain was of a shade that she sometimes wore. Oftentimes the color of the stain was indistinguishable because of the ash but she made up the colors anyway. She wondered what they wore and when she imagined bejeweled fingers holding a cigarette between them she was seized with a passionate envy. Rebbecca had given up smoking for good reason, and she stood by her decision, but she could not stop sensing an gnawing emptiness in her hand that she had never felt before; that there was something missing. She was tempted to buy a pack just so she could comfort herself sometimes by holding the cigarette as she had used to but the way she reckoned it, that was just the first step on the slippery slope to starting again and she did not want to take that chance just yet. But try as she might to ignore the the gaping void, she could not help but miss the scrape of paper on the skin of her knuckles and the reassuring pressure between her fore and middle fingers, and feel keenly the loss of the poise and vitality it had lent to her gesticulations.
Rebbecca considered the women who smoked these cigarettes; wondered what they had worn when they sat here smoking them. So many people changed buses on the way to and from everywhere around this corner of the street that it could have been anyone. It might have been someone quite like herself; but was there any woman quite like herself who came to this coffee shop? Yes, she imagined there were several dozen who grabbed a cup of coffee while passing through here waiting for the bus, or who stopped here after work as she sometimes did, except that they were usually with friends and chatted and laughed loudly and she was always alone. Alone under her pale blue umbrella at the stand waiting for the bus, alone in the basement where she worked; ironing and folding sheets of linen, alone walking up or down the street to or from some place of no great importance, alone when she stopped at the hawker for dinner, alone when she ducked into the bar for a quick drink, alone when she left after an hour of toting a half-pint of lager idly and trying not to drink any because it was not good for the baby and she did not want to get fat, alone when she headed to the payphone to call her mother, and alone when no-one answered. But these other women whose cigarette butts she sought out desperately were not as alone. And if they had been faced with the same decision Rebbecca had made for herself three months ago, would they have chosen differently? Maybe they would have, they certainly had every conceivable reason to choose differently but they might have decided to keep it. Why shouldn't she have kept it? She wasn't asking for anyone to help or understand. She was alone and then she would not be alone anymore and that was that.