I first met you as a child. You smelled so good wafting out of my mom’s mug. Once, when she got up to answer the phone I stole a sip and barely avoided spitting out the vile bitterness. Treachery! I’d been had. I scarfed cereal straight out of the box to purge the taste and reflected on the hidden perils of the grownup world. I thought you were just another cruel joke, a booby trap lying in wait for the curious.
The next time we met, I was ready for you. I’d been through puberty and I meant business now, if you know what I mean. Strictly business, actually. I was in college and I had to squeeze 25 hours of work into a 24 hour day. Including, of course, a spin on the mountain bike and a good three hours of drinking. In the morning, with nothing but a foggy memory and willpower to finish my paper and drag my skeleton to class, you gave me the fortitude to pull though. I was rough with you; I’m sorry, I was desperate, and I didn’t know better, really. I poured boiling water straight onto your grounds, drowning you in a hot acidic bath. Looking back, it’s shameful; I was just a gold-digger. Despite occasional overtures to your finer points at fancy shops downtown, I must admit I was only in it for the caffeine.
I used you at my lowest moments. I abused you. On road trips, exhausted and battered from arduous climbs in the desert, with hundreds of miles remaining between us and class the next day, I paid for you in dirty places. I snuck quickies in gas stations, I bought the brown tepid swill on the hot plate and violated it with high-fructose artificial flavorings. French Vanilla. Hazelnut. Irish Crème. I convinced myself it was consensual, and it wasn't hard; my buddies had you the same way. Everyone was doing it, and nobody was thinking twice about it.
After college we parted ways. Sometimes we met casually in diners after rowdy nights. Always in a group, never alone. It was never awkward, that way. I’d enjoy you on the side along with my hash and bacon, but I was still using you for the thrill of it. My hands would shake later if we hung out too long; I figured that was normal. Sometimes I brought you home and we fooled around on a lazy morning, but I didn't really know what I was doing. I inherited a used plastic French press from a roommate, and we tried new things. We were friends with benefits, nothing more.
There came a time when the after-glow of college days faded; the drum-and-base dance jams subsided to a whisper, and responsibility crept into the empty space left behind. Work became real work. I struggled and faced real tedium without relief. I woke to days that I knew I wasn't going to enjoy and I had to get out of my sleeping bag and stand up anyway. I found you one of these mornings, I was cold and figured that wasn't going to change all day but I brewed up with that French press and you made me warm, if only for ten minutes. We started hanging out in the mornings. I was better with my hands then, and treated you better. I learned to wait a minute before pouring. I learned to temper my intake. My hands ceased to shake.
Summer came again and the earth warmed, I didn't need your rush anymore and we began drifting apart. We started seeing each other socially again, with food. It was casual. Then my world flipped upside-down; I met a girl, a human girl, and fell head-over-heels for her. I lost track of everything: my job, my keys, time. It turned out you two were already deeply involved; we enjoyed each other together, three-ways, but it was awkward. I felt embarrassed, I fumbled. She obviously knew you better. My French press was cracked and held together with duct tape. She wasn't impressed.
Fall, and all the walls came down. I was free, no job, no rent, no home. Even she was far away. I packed my car and made my pilgrimage to Yosemite, to live in the valley of legends and learn to try BIG. It was a powerful time, but a lonely time too, as all quests are. Waking early on cold mornings in Camp Four, pulling rations from the bear box by headlamp, half reveling, half dreading the day’s coming hardships, I needed a companion. We found each other alone on those frigid mornings, we learned to share that peaceful dark space, the calm before a hard effort. Things are simple that far before dawn, things were quiet and my senses were sharp with anticipation. I explored you. I probed you with my nose, my tongue. I learned new things about you. Those quiet moments before the coming chaos of sunlight and gravity became precious, and we shared them together.
The days grew shorter and the nights grew colder, new hues of auburn and ochre emerged in the forests and hills, as if the land were rusting. With winter on its way I returned to the mountains, to friends and a warm house and one month’s rent remaining in the bank. I carried you with me, we were partners now. I found work twisting wires in houses and office buildings. I settled into a new rhythm; five days a week I rose to a silent house and found you in the inky darkness of the kitchen. I was half awake and you caressed my senses to life. We left before any roommates woke and drove across town under a graying sky. We stood in the yard together watching the sun rise over the mountains; it was cold and my breath sparkled in the frigid air. Sunrise after sunrise, on those cold mornings it was a pleasure just to be alive, to feel the shock of a frozen planet spinning toward something benevolent. I learned to court you. I bought a spill-proof thermos mug to keep you warm. I bought a glass French press with a fine mesh plunger; I learned to wait four minutes after boiling before touching you; I learned to pour slowly; I learned to make you smooth. I learned to savor you, to take it slow, to linger on your taste and subtle notes instead of rushing forward. I learned your aromas, your curving tendrils of steam. You became my companion, the thing I looked forward to. We shared each silent dark morning, it was our secret time together. I learned to stretch you out, over a whole hour, until the sun rose over the yard and I felt the warm rays splash on my face and I got called to load pipes or wire or start the truck.
Sometimes we’d get Fridays off and I’d slumber late like a bear, then rise, stumbling and yawning through the bright house, to revel in you besides heaping plates of pancakes and eggs and kimchi and wonder at the dazzling light of it all. We’d have a go at each other several times; I breathed you into my nostrils and lungs; we were in love. I started going to a local roaster and paying top-dollar for your best beans, I learned the difference between Ethiopian and Colombian, between French and medium-light. I learned new techniques, new ways to caress you with hot water, to bring out your greatest pleasure. We spent languid golden mornings in the kitchen. We had wild flings. We jammed over Coal Bank pass on a full head of steam under brilliant sunshine, Rolling Stones blaring and skis clattering in the back of the car. We took one last sip before skinning up into shimmering mountains, into the Cold Smoke. We were head-over-heels, inseparable; we never looked back.
Our relationship is older now, and wiser. More storied. As if the more water flows under the bridge, the easier it is to weather each storm. On a road trip once, far from home, I craved you badly and I bought a bag of Starbucks; you forgave me. We understand give and take. I make you at home now, mostly. When we go out, I usually pay for some place nice. Nothing fancy, I keep it simple, but nice. Sometimes, if there’s nothing quality around, I’ll wait until next time. I can do that, now. We can do that. We’re more patient.
I traveled across the globe to toil and claw at jagged mountains; weight was critical so I had to bargain to keep you. I brought instant packets and a battered mug; you understood, it was good just to be together. We needed an anchor in that rugged chaos, nothing made sense. The wind howled incessantly and the stars were upside-down and we woke up at midnight to don thick boots and harnesses and ropes and huff up swollen glaciers under piercing stars. Huddled in tents we shared a quick drink by headlamp before fighting inertia out the tent door into the massive effort that awaited outside. I held you close; you were my sanity.
Thank you for being such a steady, complex lover. I feel like I keep re-discovering you. You have so many moods, so many levels of flavor and texture. It keeps me motivated; I keep wanting to impress you. I've learned new techniques, like slow drip and cold-brewing in the summer. Encouraged by some friends, I brought some toys into our play. The Aeropress surprised you at first, but I think we've both grown to like it.
You are my muse, my solace, my excitement. Sometimes my only reason to get up, sometimes the last blissful thought I have before falling asleep: anticipating a quiet moment with you the next morning. May you ever be rich and strong.
Here’s to you, coffee.