Would I even notice the absence of cream in my coffee, once my mind had let go the idea of it?
✎ Wayne K. Spear | January 18, 2018 • Essay
N THE MORNING I make my coffee, sometimes I walk to the nearby cafe. When the barista sees me coming, she, or he, begins to make my drink: a large Americano. It is a routine whose origins I am unable to summon. There was a first time that I ordered an Americano at this shop, a first time I drank coffee. I don’t remember these firsts, I only know that they are so. Just as there are lasts.
My earliest memories of coffee are of the church basement where we gathered after service. An enormous stone building, with stained glass windows and many rows of pews, benches for the choir, a pipe organ, a vaulted ceiling. And below, a gymnasium, a Sunday school room, a large kitchen. For years we attended church on Sundays. There must have been weddings and funerals also, but I have no recollection of them. I have seen sun-bleached photos, of aunts and uncles, the happy brides and grooms whose future self will divorce and remarry, or perhaps not, retaining across the decades some small semblance of this person frozen in time, covered in wedding confetti, surrounded by those I remember as once living among us.
We went to church, as most others did. Afterward we gathered in the basement to drink coffee made in enormous steel percolators, or tea from mismatched cups and saucers, donated by kind ladies with blue hair. The same ladies who made the trays of triangle sandwiches. In one palm, the adults balancing a cup and saucer, in the other hand a wedge of sandwich nested in a paper napkin. The women in polyester dresses of harvest gold, the men in rayon jackets and chocolate brown slacks, shirts with enormous collars, the indistinct voices of grown-ups punctuated by the laughter of children. The kind ladies with blue hair appear from the kitchen, take note of the trays, and retreat. One imagines them forever baking, forever replenishing the silver trays with triangle sandwiches, even now.
One day we stopped going to church. Why, I don’t know, any more than I know why we started. Nothing was said about it, to me at least. We went, and then we didn’t. As the last of many other things arrives, must arrive, the end comes but without fanfare. “Goodbye,” you say, and “see you later,” to someone you will never say hello to again.
How does a ritual become a ritual? I used to drink my coffee with cream. I would often find myself without, sometimes on cold mornings, the coffee already made, me in my pyjamas not wanting to go outside. I couldn’t bear coffee without cream, back then. I found it too bitter, undrinkable, nasty even. And against this, the going out into the cold, to get cream from the nearby convenience store. First I would have to dress. Or at the least put on a coat and boots. I would hope to find enough change in the laundry dish. If the dish was emptied of laundry money I would have to use the bank machine. It was a scenario I grew tired of repeating.
I read that a person can learn to like something they find unpleasant, like black coffee. The article said it takes, on average, fifteen attempts. I think of the first time I drank Guinness, in a Kingston pub, on a cold December night. I found it disgusting, and yet the next week I was back, drinking another. And another after that. I became curious to know what black coffee would taste like to my re-calibrated brain. Would I even notice the absence of cream, once my mind had let go the idea of it, as it had let go so many other things? Habits, lovers, misguided notions, the many sordid details.
At first it was unpleasant. But I was surprised at how quickly I was able to edit the cream from my morning ritual and not miss it. I oughtn’t have been. After all, one day I disliked Guinness. And another day I sat in the Wellington, my back to the stage where Gerry O’Kane played his guitar and sang, drinking my Guinness at the windowfront table with my friends, walking home later in the clear December air, holding the hand of a woman to whom I was not romantically inclined when we arrived at the pub hours before. Life before and after, coffee with and without cream, love and loss, weddings and funerals. Sunday arrives. I drink my coffee black, my routine simplified, no need of cream or of choirs, of expired passions, of the rows of creaking pews, the moulding hymnals, or of kind old women with blue hair, gone but not to heaven.