My first exposure to coffee was the harsh, bitter taste of decaf in the lobby of a Hilton Inn. I’d begged for it, after seeing how my mother constantly filtered through one more cup in the mornings, two splenda, and a slow pour of milk that just clouded up to the surface. Mom would drink more on these long road trips, in cups that weren’t good, but practical.
And I was young enough that, upon tasting something I equated to stewed dirt, I pulled a face and immediately chucked the foam cup in the trash can. I can’t see myself doing that now, watching the hotel attendant’s face as the hot coffee splashed into the plastic trash bag.
At eight years old, I opted to challenge my brother to a coffee stirrers sword fight. My brother, never one to turn down a battle, accepted. This was a different age, one without shame and manners. Childish, blunt desire guided each action.
We clashed! My father had to continue with confirming the reservation at the desk as my mother came to reprimand our volume, but she could not stop our flurry of motion. Hopping up onto the benches, and across the lobby chairs, parry, block, strike. We were young enough that we didn’t need to pretend to know anything more than the words for these movements. We were not dependent on skills and techniques to win, it wasn’t about competition with each other, so much as it was about combatting boredom.
My relationship with coffee, and everything, has changed since then.
The first cup of coffee I actually enjoyed was a caramel Frappuccino, which slowly turned into a macchiato, which slowly turned into a large iced coffee. This, then, gradually shifted into a heavy pour of maple syrup, then into homemade coffee as McDonald’s became gross. Greasy seats and cold chicken nuggets became disgusting as opposed to exciting.
I did once try returning to the caramel Frappuccino. I did not enjoy the drink, the heavy drizzle of caramel syrup puckering my lips into an involuntary kiss. I shook my head as my mouth froze and my brain pinched tight.
I’ve found this happening more frequently. Sweet tea, Sprite, Uncrustables, Little Debbies, and individually wrapped American cheese have all lost their appeal. It’s not that I have a distaste for these things exactly, but rather there are so many things that I prefer now. The flavor isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t feel as good as I remember. These objects, and their existence as memories, don’t have the same feeling now as they did when I was younger.
It’s the same way I feel about sword fighting my brother in the hotel lobby. This memory doesn’t taste bad, but it doesn’t taste the same. I can’t enjoy the same misguided nostalgia that I keep filtering through my head. Now, I must understand that my mother was stressed as she tried to tear us apart, weighed down by bags under her eyes.
The memory is sweet, at first, until I go toppling over the top of the waiting chair’s armrests.
I can still enjoy the memory, but I must be able to understand it in complexity. I need to come to it on new terms and, slowly, become comfortable with the pieces I was not able to see as a child: the armrests bashing into my internal organs, the shadow hiding behind the curtains, the bags under my mom’s eyes, the broken wheel on her suitcase, and the stains on the carpet.
This morning, I found myself waking up with the sun. I excused myself from the kitchen to the back porch and watched the sun’s slow ascent into the sky. The cup of iced black coffee beside me was bittersweet, and I’ve become infinitely more comfortable with the duality of this. Bitter and sweet.
This cup of coffee is different than the one I had in the hotel lobby. It’s not stale; it’s cool, crisp, and aided by hints of cinnamon and chocolate in the slow, careful roast.
I suppose that’s how a lot of things are now. The world itself: extraordinary and multi-faceted. Bittersweet.