I was 13 when I had my first pumpkin spice latte. Dad had taken me to Starbucks on the way to school, and as soon as we walked in, I saw their poster advertising the drink. Everything about the ad screamed “warmth.” The mug it showcased was a gentle beige, contrasting sweetly against the light-brown wood of the table on which it sat, surrounded by artistically-placed autumn leaves and festive gourds. The contents of the mug were centered in the image, showing off the perfect dollop of creamy foam with caramelly tints of espresso running through it. At the top, lovingly whispered by the deft hand of a skilled, caring barista, was a sprinkling of nutmeg.
It called to me.
I eschewed my normal caramel macchiato and requested a grande pumpkin spice latte. I waited anxiously with Dad by my side. He sipped his black coffee and suggested we sit for a little while. We were running early, for once.
I sat, shaking my leg with anticipatory excitement. The cafe smelled different that day. I’d grown accustomed to the thick, imposing aroma of dark-roasted coffee and the occasional hint of sweetness as a customer’s blueberry muffin was toasted. That day, though, gripping the reins of the dark roast and riding it to a new and alluring place, was something else. Something exotic. My head swam as I realized the exotic smell was, in fact, the spicy melange of ingredients within a pumpkin spice latte: the same pumpkin spice latte I’d soon taste.
After what felt like an eternity, my order was ready. Alexander, the barista, waved me over. I did my best to avoid sprinting, but my rush was obvious.
“Easy, princess,” Dad called. I slowed down a bit and giggled. I was his princess.
I reached the counter and accepted my drink. In the tiny mouth of the lid, I could see the sprinkled spices adorning the cap of warm foam. With my eyes closed, I inhaled the steam rising from the hole.
The scent was an embrace from a ghost; a non-corporeal expression of love and comfort. The first sip was transcendental. At that moment, I knew what it felt like to believe in something bigger than myself.
Each day before school, Dad would take me to Starbucks to get another pumpkin spice latte. Its effect on me didn’t dull, nor did it taste any less special. As early autumn reds decayed into late autumn browns, I found my mood better than it had ever been in my short life. I never knew it was so easy to be happy.
At 6:51am on December 1st, 2005, Dad and I walked into Starbucks.
At 6:52am on December 1st, 2005, my happiness was torn from my chest and dashed against the rocks.
The pumpkin spice latte was a limited-time product. Alexander told me it’d be back just in time for fall next year, then asked if I’d like to go back to my caramel macchiato. Entombed in disbelief and disappointment, I nodded.
The following days were a blur of grays. My vivacity had been strangled. Dad would ask, over and over, what he could do to make his princess happy. I didn’t need to tell him, though. He knew. And there was nothing he could do about it.
December slouched toward Christmas, a holiday I’d always loved. Not anymore, though. Now that I’d seen the world through a lens of happiness and warmth, nothing looked the same without it. Quite the contrary: it all looked fake. Vulgar. When I closed my eyes on Christmas Eve, I prayed for Santa to bring me blindness or death.
On Christmas morning, I woke up to Dad standing next to my bed. That was a little tradition he and I had. Before Mom passed away, they’d both come up and shake me awake and carry me downstairs to see what Santa had brought. Now that it was just the two of us, he wanted to keep the tradition going. Even in my despondence, I still appreciated it.
Dad held my hand and we headed down the steps. Tears had started to flow without my knowing. We reached the Christmas tree in the living room. Only one present stood underneath. It was small and wrapped with bright green paper. I looked at Dad with confusion. He just smiled and beckoned to the gift.
I sat, cross legged, under the tree, and tore away the paper. My soft weeping grew into pitiful bleating.
“Why would you do this?,” I whispered to Dad, my breath heaving with sobs. In my lap, beneath the shiny, torn paper, was a cheery, autumnal Starbucks mug. The same one from the poster I’d seen on that transformative day.
I was baffled and hurt, but Dad stood, still smiling.
“Come with me, princess.”
I obeyed and rose to my feet, following his long stride out of the living room, down the hallway, and into the kitchen.
Dad looked into my misty eyes and whispered, “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” He opened the cellar door.
A faint, but familiar and exquisite aroma entered me. In my surprise, I nearly dropped my present.
“Why don’t you go see what Santa brought you?,” Dad suggested.
I ran down the 14 steps with the same enthusiasm I had when ran across Starbucks to receive my first pumpkin spice latte. This time, Dad didn’t tell me to slow down.
I reached the bottom, turned the corner, and there, on a makeshift bar, was a new espresso machine. I gasped. Behind the bar, manning the machine, was Alexander the barista. He smiled and stared, wide-eyed, as Dad reached the bottom of the stairs and placed himself by my side.
“Go ahead, princess, tell the nice man what you’d like.”
My voice quavered at first, but I finished my request with enthusiasm and strength. “May I please have a pumpkin spice latte?”
Alexander, still smiling, nodded. He began to work. The coffee was ground and thick espresso drooled out of the machine into the bottom of the mug. With a hiss of steam, the milk was frothed. Warm milk joined the espresso in the mug, followed by a generous dollop of ethereal foam. Then Alexander picked up a large shaker. I knew what had to be inside.
With three expert shakes, a pixie dusting of pumpkin spice kissed the foamy head of the latte. He picked up my mug and held it out. I walked up to the bar, carefully took the mug from Alexander’s hand, and thanked him. I noticed, for the first time, he didn’t have any legs and was strapped to a rolling stool.
“I’m sorry about your accident, Alexander,” I said with sincerity. He didn’t say anything, but kept smiling. I saw a small cut in his neck and wondered if his accident had made it so he couldn’t talk anymore.
“Merry Christmas,” I told him. He stared at Dad.
I took a sip from the mug, and, for the first time in nearly a month, it seemed like I could see in color again. The world felt right and I was happy.
My tears were drying as I took Dad’s hand. We turned the corner and headed up the steps. We reached the landing and Dad switched off the basement light. He always hated to waste electricity.
“You can have one every morning now, princess,” Dad informed me. “As long as I’m around, I’ll make sure you get whatever you need.”
I hugged him, feeling the warmth of his body against mine. It was nearly as pleasant as the mug against my palm. He was right, too. Things have been wonderful ever since.