2010-05-20 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

Love’s lingering aftertaste

I am not a coffee drinker. Not that I don’t love the taste — because I do — but I’m terrified of caffeine addiction. I’ve seen how coffee addicts get when they don’t have their daily dose—headaches, nausea, lying on the floor wailing. I’m afraid that if, say, Armageddon comes and in the post-apocalyptic world there is no coffee, I’ll be the one rolling on the floor in withdrawal while everyone else loots Bloomingdales.

But then I had a moment last week where I was wracked by the kind of bonefatigue that requires heavy caffeination. I rummaged through my kitchen cabinets, my head heavy and wincing, as if it had been stuffed with metal shavings. Behind a can of breadcrumbs and an open box of dry lasagna noodles, I found a jar of instant coffee. I scooped a teaspoon into a mug, dribbling black crystals on the counter, and added hot water. Sugar, milk, and then: bliss. It tasted like heaven. My brain perked up, the curtain of sleep deprivation parted, and the sun rose on the world.

Every day since, I have had a cup of that coffee. But here’s the thing: The caffeine is nice, but I’m not jonesing for the jittery bump. It’s the taste I crave, not of coffee exactly — if I were serious I would visit the gourmet coffee shop on the corner — but of the instant stuff. The flavor has a familiarity to it that took me almost a week to trace.

I realized what it was when I found myself buying Parmalat milk, the kind that comes in a box, imported from Europe. With my standard, refrigeratedvariety, the taste of my instant brew was not quite right, not quite what I was looking for. It needed boxed milk, the kind I would drink in France when I studied in Provence, when I spent my days with a green-eyed boy who played the guitar and gave me trinkets he bought in Morocco. He, too, loved instant coffee, and he would make me a cup in the afternoons, after class, when we would listen to music in his room. The smell of lavender drifted through the open window on a faint breeze, lifting the curtains like a ghost.

At a party recently, I found myself in the kitchen with a friend, consoling him over the breakup with his long-time girlfriend.

"I've never loved anyone like her," he said.

I listened and nodded my head sympathetically. My friend shrugged, trying to make light of it but somehow not succeeding.

"It's been eight weeks," he said. "I thought I would be over her by now." 

I wanted to tell him the truth, that we never really get over the people we love. They stay with us, and we remember them at the strangest moments. That the things we least expect - a cup of coffee - can stir feelings we hoped forgotten, and we realize that those memories were dormant, not dead, and that they sleep inside us, awaiting a smell, a touch, a taste.

But I told my friend none of these things. It has only been eight weeks, after all, and he will learn them in time.

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