“What’s the secret of life?”
“Coffee – pour me a cup, and we’ll talk.”
so much depends
a white coffee
lost in the blue
beside the dripping
I broke my favorite mug today. It was plain and a colorless off-white with coffee staining on the bottom. It had tiny cracks that seemed to form a circular ring round and round. It was poorly made, but it was still a mug and it had all of its necessary functions. It held liquids and it had a handle so it couldn’t have been called a glass.
I named it mine, when I moved into my new apartment. Only this mug was left behind. I doubt the previous tenant wanted me to have it, since I found in the trash.
He probably packed everything into suitcases, sturdy boxes, threw some minor unbreakable things into plastic bags, loaded up his furniture, and drove away in a hired car to wherever he was intended.
This mug wasn’t special in any way, and was basically an ugly thing. But it wasn’t broken, and it was the only object in the whole apartment except for the dust bin.
It was the only thing in the bin and it seemed neatly placed in its centre. It wasn’t dirty at all, and it didn’t have any flaws at the time, the sticker was still on its bottom.
It had never been used before. Probably.
It was probably a badly selected gift. From a person who didn’t really have the time to pick something out, or just didn’t care enough what kind of present he brought on whichever the occasion it had been given to the previous tenant.
It might not even have been given to this tenant. He might have won it on a raffle or something. It didn’t really matter. But I did wonder why it was sitting in the trash so desolately and almost sad.
I didn’t like it after my close inspection. When I had pulled it out of the trash it wasn’t special at all. There might be millions of them, just the same, in the world, still. In apartments, in houses, in offices, in warehouses waiting to be shipped. Every day people drink their morning coffee, their evening tea, or be it the other way around, or be it liqour, poured in the mug, because the husband or the wife is trying to conceal the drinking problem everybody knows exists, but is nevertheless so easy to deny.
I could have left it in the trash, since it wasn’t mine and I had mugs of my own neatly packed in bubble wrap so they wouldn’t break on the way to my new apartment; and mine were much prettier.
But the mug was fine and wasn’t broken and I named it mine.
The first sip of coffee in my new apartment was made from that mug. Exhausted from moving, moving around furniture and then rearranging it again until it was where it was supposed to be, where it looked best in my eyes, after unpacking everything and filling the closets with clothing, bed linen, shoes, after stacking the shelves with books and little keepsakes, after filling up every room with my things, after making this my new home, after a long day’s work, I sat down on my sofa, stretched my legs and arms and had some coffee.
I gazed at my new existence with tired, reddened eyes and kept rethinking my furniture. Would my comfortable, albeit tacky, armchair look better next to the window? Would that table need to go a little bit more to the left?
This mug was the only thing that wasn’t mine in my new apartment, and I made it mine, when my coffee machine poured some coffee into it, and as I would see the next day, the coffee made its first stain – the first of its many imperfections. Being tired after a long day, I just placed it in the kitchen sink to be washed the next day. I walked the walk to my bedroom. From the kitchen, around the corner, past my lush Zamia and into my cozy bed with a number of soft and colorful pillows, seven to be exact.
The next day, when I washed the mug, I saw the coffee had made a stain I couldn’t get out after a fervorous second wash. Gradually, the stain got darker and darker, since more and more coffee was poured in it each following day.
It wasn’t special at all, but it somehow reminded me of the time when the rooms were empty and waiting to be filled, when life was to take whatever form it might… or it just seems like that to me now, wearing my nostalgic glasses, in the same apartment that has changed over the years.
The whole apartment is packed now. The furniture, my clothes, my memories.
I broke the mug on purpose. It was time for a new beginning, with a new colorless mug I will find in a new apartment.
On another one of those terribly quiet and slate-gray afternoons, Charlie got up from his bedroom armchair. He walked from his table laden with greyish folders past a carved bookcase displaying well-bound books with gilded stripes. They were his father’s and all bore “Law” in their titles. Charlie walked towards the window and leaned against the wall. His eyelids kept closing slowly over his red-rimmed eyes. The short pops of his knuckles, the duller, deeper cracking of his neck. Rubbing his elbows, he sat on the windowsill, inhaled deeply and in between stretched his mouth into a yawn.
Charlie had been studying for weeks now, and the bar exam was ominously approaching. A big hurdle that he was doubtful he could jump over. He failed it in January, and it was dead-end November with its display of grey. The grey clouds, rain, streets. The grey light in the afternoon. The grey bedspread. The grey folders hugging the stapled pages of black on white.
Three taps on the door went unnoticed and after a few moments the maid opened the door balancing the tray with biscuits and coffee in her left hand.
“I brought your evening coffee, Mr. Charles. I’ll just put it on your desk. If you should need anything else…”
“No. Thank you Grace. That won’t be necessary. I’ll be leaving soon,” Charlie answered without looking at her.
“Shall I arrange for a driver?” she enquired.
“No need, I’ll be driving myself tonight,” Charlie said, still looking out the window.
“Then have a nice evening, sir,” said Grace leaving the room, pushing the door into its place softly behind her.
The window showed a street empty and bleak, but for the sway of leaves and tree branches there was nothing alive, nothing comforting. Charlie stood up, walked to the coat hanger and selected a neatly-tailored coat and a matching hat. With the hat in his hand he exited the room; the steaming coffee and freshly-baked biscuits sprinkled with sugar sitting on the table untouched. He knew the recipe well. He had made these biscuits many times and knew that if you covered the cookies with a damp cloth just after taking them out of the oven, they were even better.
He returned the next morning at a quarter past 7:00. He had spent the night in a hotel, the receipt for the room still in his coat pocket neatly folded. He took off his hat and sat in his armchair still wearing his coat. The coffee and biscuits were gone. The bed was made, the bedspread now navy blue. Grace knocked.
“Good morning, sir. Breakfast will be served in an hour, but I if you prefer to eat early, I can bring breakfast up to you.”
“I would like to make my own breakfast today.”
“Well… sir. I’ll prepare anything, if you just tell me…”
“Have you eaten yet?” he said.
“Well… no, but I…”
“Then I’ll make us some breakfast.”
He walked past her without giving her a chance to reply, descending the steps. Dozens of old gilded frames bearing important family faces were displayed along the circular hallway and down the carved steps bigger family portraits hung, some in complete darkness, some half-lit. The last in the line was the portrait of his father.
Grace turned around and hurried down the steps, while Charlie had already reached the kitchen. She pressed her whole palm against the revolving glass door and clasping her hands by her elbows moved quickly behind the counter. Charlie’s coat was on the hanger and he was wearing an apron with blue dots.
“Please sit down and tell me what you would like to eat,” said Charlie.
“Mr. Charles, I can make…”
“I know you can,” he said.
“Please, let me…” she said.
“Please, let me,” Charlie said finally.
Grace was still standing behind the counter and rubbing her fingers.
“I like milk-rolls with honey for breakfast. And a cup of white coffee. No sugar,” she said.
Charlie turned around and opened a cabinet on his left. He took out a flat baking tin and covered it with baking paper he took out of the drawer on his right.
“There are fresh rolls and croissants in the pantry, Charles… Mr. Charles.”
“I know there are, but I’m going to bake some,” he said.
“I’ll bring flour and…” she said.
“No, please sit. I’ll make breakfast.”
Grace did sit down and she watched Charlie make the dough with his hands, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up, flour on his fingers and under his nails. He was silent. Grace, still fidgeting, did not say a word. Charlie felt awkward and tried to move past it by making small talk.
“How are you feeling today Grace?”
“I’m fine, sir,” she said.
“Please call me Charlie,” he said. He wanted to sound natural, but his words kept sounding artificial; he had already heard variations of this sentence millions of times on TV.
“I-I-don’t think it’s appropriate, sir.”
“Then call me Charles, you did just a minute ago.”
Grace’s cheeks were turning to peach, but it was true; she did call him by his first name.
“All right, Charles,” she said, her cheeks ripe and golden.
Grace watched him fold the rolls; gentle creases skillfully appeared under his fingers. He brushed the rolls with egg yolk and sprinkled lime peel on top. He placed the shiny small heaps into the oven. He poured dark coffee into two transparent tall glasses and poured the frothy cream and milk in the center, gradually making the dark coffee white. He poured caramel on top, which sunk slowly through the stiff cream. He took the rolls out of the oven, placed a few on a shallow square plate next to sliced greengage and torn mint. He made circles around them with a spoon covered in honey.
They ate together and sipped coffee like old friends, although they did not really know each other. They didn’t speak. They didn’t have to. The shared silence was a comfort to both.
Grace cleared everything away when they finished eating.
“I’m not taking the bar again,” he said.
“You shouldn’t,” she agreed.
Charlie exhaled lightly and joined his hands together. Staring at them, he said:
“I’m telling my father tomorrow. I cannot be a lawyer.”
Facing Charlie, Grace leaned on a cupboard. She did not say anything, but lightly nodded her head. Charlie, now almost relaxed, felt he was being listened to and allowed to speak his mind, something his father had never done. The wall between them never revealed any cracks and never needed repainting. They were always each on one side, his father shouting orders from his side and Charlie silently listening on his.
“When I checked myself in a hotel yesterday I just wanted to get out of this house. I just couldn’t push through – I’m not meant to be a lawyer, I never wanted this. But it was always so important that I continue the all and mighty family practice and have my name on a gilded plaque outside a fancy, tall building,” he said raising his hands and placing them back on the table. Grace stood silent.
“When I walked down to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner yesterday, I walked past the kitchen. I looked through the oval window on the double doors and everything in that kitchen was just so alive. Each any every cook was delightfully busy with food. It was just – just beautiful,” he said, staring at Grace with a passionate flush in his cheeks.
“I paid the head chef to let me stay in the kitchen and watch. I watched him and the other chefs the entire evening. I watched them bake in the morning,” he said.
Grace’s lips revealed a faint smile in the corners while Charlie kept on adding sentence after sentence about what ingredients the chefs had used and how they moved their hands, quickly but precisely. He would tell his father the next morning that he had bought a plane ticket for Italy, that he wanted to cook. He would listen to his father saying that he was a disappointment for wanting to chop vegetables for all of his life. He would let his father finish, pack his suitcase and walk out the door.
Mornings aren’t really my cup of tea, or rather, coffee; I drink coffee in the morning. My blood pressure is naturally low and everything in the morning seems to alter it, cataclysmically increase it, is the correct wording. It could be in some way cosmologically connected with the universe, some kind of karma crap thing – but the important thing is: I dislike mornings, because nothing good really comes from a morning, but it is nevertheless necessary to get up. Think about it, when did any morning begin great? Well, you’re thinking, it did, on some days, but if you really think about it, if you put your mind to things, you can see it never does begin great. You had to get up for god’s sake! And if you have to get up, nothing good comes of the day, trust me. The days when you don’t have to get up – those are the days it’s worth getting up for. But those don’t come along that often. To come back to the point I wanted to make earlier, but obviously, the mind works in mysterious ways, mine with seriously cliché wording, ah, well. But no, seriously, I always felt getting up early should be prohibited by law. They should put it in the constitution or something. Rising prohibited till 8 o’clock in the morning! Breach of this law will be punished by confinement in bed. But who in his right mind would break this law?
Now, if we look at my standard morning procedure: I do not rise early. And I despise early rising, especially if it is involuntary. The first moment you open your eyes should be a calm, serene moment, accompanied with gentle musical tones, the delightful delicious smell of breakfast in bed or at least it should be 8 o’clock. 10 o’clock is even better. The reality is that my mornings often do not start like this, though I firmly insist on my late-rising procedure. Rather, they start like this: with a deep and grumpy m-m-m-mmmm, a painful aaa-a-a-a shriek, and with an angry expression written across my face and forehead asking my boyfriend if a look like a morning person to him (which is the actual inscription on the covering-eyes-thingy-for-sleeping-when-it’s-very-bright-at-night). Then the-somebody-woke-me-up scenario unravels something like this: the indecent mumblings are followed by consecutive phrases of mono- and di-syllabic words and when I actually gain consciousness, which is usually an hour after somebody woke me up, I am able to form coherent sentences, complex paragraphs and intricate texts, which constitute my daily conversations. However, the first thing I need to do is apologize for my early grouchiness. But, I feel I am entitled to a little grumpiness (see what I did here? grouchiness, grumpiness… ‒ never mind), if I am woken up for no good reason, and mostly there are no good reasons for waking me (at least I don’t view them as credible). If the house is on fire, wake me up, otherwise leave me alone and exit quietly.
Consider for instance my morning today. The marvelous un-solitary lying in bed. It’s always nice when you have somebody in bed with you, right? Wrong. People are considered to be social creatures, enjoying the presence of another of our kind, so our pathetic wining has an addressee. Pf, people. All right then, going back to the marvelous… marvelous? didn’t I use that word before – oh yes, there it is, a few lines back, ok then – glorious, going back to the glorious extended state of the body, the spine stretching in your sleep, if you’re sleeping right, otherwise it hunches and hurdles into a stiff mass of painful areas, which you can’t even reach, so for the day, you’ll have to endure, or pay for a massage, ah, Thai massage, it really is great, isn’t it? If you haven’t had one, you should, that’s all I’m going to say. So yes, the horizontal comfort of sleeping – it’s hideously broken if you have a person by your side in bed and the bed is small. If you have a king size mattress, ultra soft, super anti-mite, anti-allergies yada yada yada of the commercial phrases they throw in so you feel you’re getting the most for your buck; well if you have that kind of bed, then I think it would be ok. It’s not ok, when a person has to climb over you to get out of bed, and of course, of course, bumps into you, waking you, scaring you – somebody instantly standing over your head, and you start looking for the dagger in their right hand. ‘Murdered in bed’ the headline would say. Creepy.
Where was I? Aha, my morning today. Well, holding the blanket firmly by both hands, hands crossed over the sides of my neck neatly tucked in under the blanket – a technique I flatter myself I invented. I haven’t met a person who sleeps this way. The tucked feet, you know, with the blanket over and then under your feet, I’ve seen that, but not the crossed hands. Come to think of it, I probably look like a mummy, but without the golden scepter, the death mask and without actually being dead (very important). Mornings are brutal and sometimes you do feel like you’re dead already. But I somehow manage to look beautiful in the morning. The day ruins that, don’t worry. So tucked in carefully so the tossing, turning, switching positions doesn’t expose a part of my body to the enemy – air, I guess; you know, because you get cold if your feet or your hands are dangling out of bed. Another unpleasant thing is, when your arm falls asleep resulting from a position you don’t have the ability to explain. So tucked in, sleeping heavenly, the dreamless beauty sleep, peaceful, calm without the slightest idea this heaven is going to end in 3, 2, 1. Noise. A car crash of cereal boxes and the annoying metallic rustling of plastic bags holding the actual cereal, the earthquake-alert – opening and closing cabinets, hammering down that it’s morning, the explosive sporadic clatter of dishes and spoons, forks, and knives that want to kill you.” Are you kidding me!” a rhetorical question – and you better not answer it and piss me off.
I grab my lost comfort, my blanket, and pull it over my head. This is going to be great. I don’t have to get up for 2 hours, but looky now, I am up. With murderous thoughts in my head, knowing I won’t be able to fall asleep again when the noise stops, I get up and put on for a cup of coffee. The cup that holds the last remaining shred of hope, no sugar please, my life is sweet enough. Oh, and did I mention the headache?