Today is the first in a weeklong series of love stories. They are not bodice-ripper stories. They are not tales of tender romance. There will be no account of the first time I laid eyes on my child (which, to be honest, was kind of like, "Wow!" but also a little like, "Gross, dude.") No, these are the overlooked loves, the little joys that sustain us even when world news makes us sad, angry, and hopeless. These stories are a bit of gratitude, which is at the heart of love.
I drank my first cup of coffee at a Horn & Horn Smörgåsbord, a now-defunct Baltimore area buffet chain. Pans of lasagna, vats of tater tots, dark pools of beef gravy surrounding islands of salisbury steak -- for $9.99 per person, we ate as much as we wanted and in whatever Frankensteinian combination moved our appetites. I'd plucked feathers out of the batter on many a wing, yet the vast chafing dish of fried chicken always called to me. I enjoyed my chicken with sides of pickled beets, cottage cheese, peaches in syrup, and a cup of frozen yogurt slathered in plasticky hot fudge.
Despite our intrepid attitude toward eating, my family did not (and does not) have the gastrointestinal fortitude to withstand bulk quantities of weapons-grade ham steaks or potatoes au gratin. We carried a full bottle of Malox with us on every trip to Horn & Horn.
Two years after my mom died, my family hired Ms. Leony, a tender, quirky Filipino woman, as a nanny for my sisters and me. Ms. Leony often joined us at Horn & Horn, storing the all-important Malox in her oversized purse. After a particularly gruesome gorge, Ms. Leony had poured herself a cup a coffee, but suddenly pushed it away and instead fished the Malox out of her bag. She unscrewed the cap on the bottle of antacid and chugged it tableside. My dad shot her a sideways look, but seemed to think better of saying anything. A man in a nearby booth, I recall, had entirely unbuttoned his pants. Horn & Horn was not the place to judge.
"You want my coffee?" she asked, sliding the mug in my direction. "I'm allowed to have coffee?" I marveled. She looked at my dad. My dad solemnly nodded. I was 10. I didn't know anyone my age who drank coffee. I assumed that youth coffee drinking was part of the mysterious, amazing Philippine culture and cuisine with which I was becoming familiar: lumpia, pancit, chicken adobo, and coffee with six packets of sugar and a generous glug of cream. I took a tentative sip. Then I chugged.
That first cup tasted exactly like warm coffee-flavored ice cream -- more reward than kick-in-the-pants. It wasn't until I was a freshman in college that I realized one could drink coffee without sugar, or, rather, without quite so much sugar. When I sidled up to the college coffee bar, sugar packets crammed in each fist, my classmates would stand back, dramatically arcing their over-plucked brows at me above their cups of black brew. I slowly weaned myself from a six-packet-per-cup habit down to one packet. Kicking the cream would require me to revisit the family tradition of carrying a bottle of Malox in my purse. The cream stayed. The cream still stays.
During the student years, years short on sleep and long on doubt, I leaned on coffee. No, I curled into coffee. Like a toddler curls into his mother when he is overtired and overstimulated and ready to fight and ready to cry and needs something, please, Mama, something. For every packet of sugar I'd cut from my mug, I'd added an extra cup of coffee to my daily meal plan. By my senior year of college, while working two on-campus jobs, one off-campus job, and commuting 2 hours roundtrip to school, I drank a pot or more of coffee each day. "This cup," I kept telling myself, "will keep me going." And again, "This cup will be the thing." Some of my cohorts got drunk or got high. I got caffeinated. Sweating and vibrating atop an examining table, my family doctor finally intervened. "Coffee is not a substitute for sleep, Jessica. You, and let me be frank here, look like crap." He wasn't wrong. But he didn't get me, not like coffee got me. Coffee knew I had circles under my eyes and a hand tremor, but it held my shoulders in its warm grip, keeping me upright.
Eventually, school gave way to work, and pots of coffee gave way to 7 hours of sleep. For a few years, coffee and I cooled off, pecking each other on the cheek each morning, occasionally chatting in the break room at the office. Then parenting happened. A precious 8-lb flesh and scream bomb obliterated sleep, sanity, self-assurance -- my entire reality. Not long after I gave birth, my husband began setting the coffee pot to self-start. Come 5 a.m., with a soothing "blip blip," the carafe would be filled as if by fairy magic, and no matter how little I'd rested the night before, no matter how depressed or overwhelmed or angry or giddy or sick I felt before that blip, my mood instantly improved the moment I plucked a mug from the cupboard and poured myself a cup. Fresh coffee. New day. Anything was possible. Some mornings, I had only 10 minutes to myself to gulp it down before my son stirred, hungry and in need of a change. But those 10 minutes were transformational.
Now a preschooler, my son is much more generous in doling out my sleep allowance. Yet I still make a point to wake at least a half hour before him. I slip down to the kitchen, listening for the tell-tale "blip blip." And on those rare afternoons when I have time alone, I sometimes sneak out to a coffee shop, where I can literally steep myself in the smell of roasting coffee beans while drinking a vanilla mochaccino (which is maybe, probably a sign of sugar packet backsliding). If I'm in a daring mood, I bring along a notebook and my laptop. Office life has kept me busy. Parenting has kept me busy. My health could be better. It's been a long time since I've written. I'm out of practice. I feel tired. I feel doubtful. Then I tip the cup to my mouth, and think, "New day. Anything is possible."