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Coffeehouse Stories: Being tested in Fairfax

    Daniel Zenobia, an occupational therapist, arrived around 9:30 a.m. at the Caribou Coffee in Fairfax Corner, ordered a light French roast, and seated himself to ponder a few issues: his father’s declining health, “things I wish I was doing,” and most important, where things are going with his newish girlfriend, a fellow Christian who works in technology sales.

In a few hours, he was scheduled to have lunch at the nearby Potbelly Sandwich Shop with her and her friends from work. He knew the meal would exert a subtle yet palpable pressure, as their questions sized up his wit, career, even his pop culture sensibilities. What sort of hoagie would he order? He didn’t know quite yet. He sipped that French roast, brooding over the heavy stuff.

“I am wondering if she is the one,” Zenobia said. “I think we’d be in agreement to go to some pre-marital counseling -- someone to help ask the hard questions. I did ask her once, ‘Have you considered thinking about getting serious?' She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Yes.’”

   Zenobia needed so much time to think about his life’s prospects and aggravations by his window at Caribou -- the poetic moment marred only by a view that overlooked a Plow & Hearth shop and a R.E.I. outdoors store -- that he didn’t even bother to bring his laptop.

One reason he harbors hope about a permanent future with his girlfriend is that she is also a Christian and regularly attends church services. Zenobia, an acoustic guitarist who likens his music to Jack Johnson’s, performs in an ensemble at McLean Bible Church. He grew up Christian in Hollidaysburg, Pa., home of the Slinky toy, where his father, a retired electronics repairman, and mother, a chemotherapy nurse, still live.

Growing up, Zenobia liked the way religion made him feel privileged and indebted to an unknowable power. He likes how prayer makes him feel like he’s always striving for something. He once dreamed of becoming a full-time musician, like his older brother Timothy, who plays viola in the U.S. Army Strings and has performed for the president at the White House and elsewhere.

But Zenobia has also questioned his faith. He recently became angry with God after his father was diagnosed with leukemia. But he said his girlfriend -- someone he met a few months ago and declined to name for this story because the subject material was too personal -- has helped erase his skepticism. “She prayed for me. She said, ‘All things work together for the good,’” he said, citing the Bible.

Lunch time was nearing. He packed his belongings, took a right out of the door, walked past a multitude of pregnant mothers at A Pea in the Pod maternity store, and finally opened the doors into the crowded Potbelly’s.

There she was, already in a booth. They embraced. They bought hoagies. Then they sat down with her work friends.

One of her colleagues quizzed him about his occupational therapist job, how long he’d been doing it. She even admitted she had checked him out online. Wisely, Zenobia switched the subject to his girlfriend.

“I hear she’s the pioneer in sales,” Zenobia said, biting into his turkey sub.

“I’m not actually No. 1. I’m No. 2,” she said, blushing.

They joked about who in their office behaved like characters in the television show, “The Office.” Zenobia and his girlfriend talked about their messy sandwiches and the “diapers” the held the hoagies and all their fillings. “It holds the spill in,” the girlfriend explained.

But Zenobia was also quiet. Stretches of conversation were consumed with his girlfriend’s workplace gossip. He worried he wasn’t being funny enough.

As they wrapped up, Zenobia walked away briefly to toss his trash, and one of the girlfriend’s friends, Tamara Yunker, 27, of Woodbridge, stole a private moment with the girlfriend. “Do you think we scared him?”

The girlfriend laughed.

Zenobia walked her to her car. He said he didn’t tell her about one of his secret ambitions: his longing one day to move out of the Washington region and back home in Hollidaysburg, to be with his parents, hopefully while they are still alive.

“Sometimes when you say less,” he explained, “less is more.”

By Ian Shapira  | July 28, 2010; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  Local Life, coffee house newsroom  
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