Debby asked me to keep a tally for the number of cups of coffee I drink per day. I keep the tally in my mind. Three so far today, I think. If decaf counts, then maybe four or five more. If strawberry infused green tea counts, then five or six. Maybe seven. Pushing eight for anything over 100 millilitres. And I’m predicting three or four more. I sense a coffee splurge.
Mixed Blessings Cafe, downtown. Subway steps were slippery, so I walked. 11:32. Busy. Ish. Quiet. Ish. Coffee grinds in between muffling Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony in G-Minor. There is a dilemma fidgeting with my soul. I cough twice, but I am fine.
Nothing to see.
My dentist would kill me if she were to see me here, taking this stuff, this potion – especially in the middle of morning. Unnecessary; unwarranted; deeply, deeply foolish.
I am taking long, fierce gulps, pulling coffee with the hot, smoky air. I keep my dreams hidden in the farthest parts of my brain; far enough to feel safe, close enough to be seen, and seen enough to feel possible.
Debby Kanter: my dentist. With a PhD in dentistry. With green eyes. With a flat nose. With straight, white teeth. Obviously. Her breath stinks of wild berry freshener, though. Her veins look like vermicelli noodles. She drinks hot water. No carbonated soda. Never. No sweeteners. Never. No sugar. Never. No complex carbohydrates after 8pm. Never.
Her hair is a stiff depression; soft, but troubled. Subdued too. Horribly subdued. And washed. Ferociously. Like a mannequin. She wears orange socks. Not sure why, but she does. And she smiles, because I don’t. She smiles a lot, not happily, but knowingly. Like a witch. Uhh.
She lives with fifteen cats on a side road in Queens. That’s weird, I think; sad too, because she’s forty-six, nearly forty-seven, unmarried and childless, but does still enjoy the company of her fifteen cats. Fourteen now; she told me Bert, the youngest of all fifteen, died on Tuesday.
Today the coffee is Columbian. Yesterday it was Kenyan. The day before that it was Turkish, or Peruvian, or Ethiopian – although it tasted Guatemalan, kind of. Maybe. Kind of. Not sure. Anyway.
Debbie hates my teeth. My teeth hate Debby. Coffee hates my teeth. I feel yellow rust on my teeth. Coffee must blister your heart; declare war on your soul before leaving a rigorous legacy in your mind.
Debby always asks me if I brush my teeth. Yes, I do – Twice, daily.
Electric toothbrush? Yep.
How exactly do you brush? Sideways? Up and down? Neither? Both? I don’t know. I don’t care. Sideways. Sideways. Sideways.
Then she says, “I hope… I really do hope things pick up”.
Pick up. Things always need picking up. But my dirty teeth give her something to do, surely? Cleaning up the dirt. Like a police officer. Like a domestic cleaner. Like an embalmer.
Recovery is worth it.
I am going to construct a story from the plump kid in blue track pants waiting at the walk signal. He will fast until 10pm, eat ice cream for 3 hours, go to bed feeling sad, wake up and drink coffee until 10 pm; then his breath will stink of copper. His heart will sleep on coffee. His brain will swim in coffee. He will survive the night. He will buy more coffee in the morning.
Dad always says nobody is OK. Dad hates the word normal. He calls me eccentric instead. I disagree with my dad. I am normal: I dress normally and I do normal things, I have normal attributes and I have normal thoughts.
I wrote 4,125 words in twenty-one minutes on the Russian intervention in Syria on Christmas Eve. I need to know about the world. I need work to feel good. Like normal people. People work. People get money. People feel happy. Most people. Yeah? Normally. I like normality.
The guy near the cash register, looking like he’s swum the Hudson, is now deciding what he wants. His left eye moves faster than the right, racing and exploding in all different directions, still deciding, still deciding. Decided. He orders fruit rooibos, oatmeal with fruit compote, no syrups, no nuts, cooked with almond milk. Almond or soy? Soy or hazelnut? Not sure.
He pays with his card. It’s declined. He tries again. It works. The receipt bleeds out. The oatmeal takes a while to heat so he slowly paces around near the washrooms. I begin to feel bad for the floorboards. Plain oatmeal for Dave? Yep. He grips the cup. Thanks very much. And now he runs off like a bank robber. My bones shudder.
Did I frown? I think I did; not sure. Someone is frowning. I can’t see it, but I can sense it. I am trying to keep myself to myself. I feel these thick eyes on the back of my neck, like a toothpick, scratching. My collarbones twitch, so I avert my gaze to the dust storms happening beneath me.
I am watching the dust dance in this breathless routine, the same routine the desert danced during my holiday in Saudi Arabia. I ate fifteen dates. I didn’t count. I probably ate more like twenty. I didn’t count. Not then. Nothing counted. Nothing mattered. The desert fizzed in tangerine colours, and I told Debby. She didn’t believe me. I showed her my ticket to Riyadh. She still didn’t believe me. Debbie never believes me.
She only believes what she sees. This feels wrong to me. Very wrong. Ridiculous. My feet tingle. My arms spasm. My chest pumps liquid to my throat. The wrong way? Coffee does this. I just ordered a double shot. I do everything to please Debby. Except what she asks of me. It makes me feel powerful, to deny her like this. It’s my power to choose. That’s my logic.
The double shot arrives. I get one free biscotti on the side, so I create a smile using my knowledge of what smiling looks like. I show my teeth. I hold this expression for six seconds.
The coffee roams my body like a parasite. I am already bored. I get cramps in my left leg, like frying shallots in butter. It caramelises in my feet. I could go home now and eat pasta with my family. I don’t because my dreams are waking up.
I will open my own wine bar in Brooklyn and it will be called Glass of Words. I will write twelve books and three will be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I will marry the waitress I see at a pizzeria in LA. I will propose underneath the fig tree in my garden. My parents will watch from the window upstairs. Mom will cry and Dad will squeeze her shoulder. They will look proud, so proud. My dog will bark.
We will eat salmon en croute for lunch, then rhubarb crumble with coffee ice cream. I will make a joke about the past. Everyone will laugh. I will. I will. I promise. Give me time. I promise.
My phone is 2% charged.
I have fourteen miscalls and twelve new messages.
Debby rang twice at 11 AM.
This place closes in six minutes, and so:
Five minutes to check spelling,
Thirty seconds to save it as a pdf,
Thirty seconds to decide what to call it.
1% battery. I lower the brightness to 25%; less fierce, more subtle – a little, not much – but enough to see my face on the screen: a tiny thing, rocking slightly, losing shape a little, not much, coming, going, coming, going, like a ghost. There, not there, there, not there,
there, there, there.
I see. I see.