I’ve given up coffee. Again.
The catalyst was a recent trip to Portland, a city abuzz on handcrafted, artisanal brews. The visit coincided with an unusual cold snap, and served as the perfect excuse to go on a coffee bender. My partner Brint and I devoted a day to a self-guided walking tour of urban architecture, stepping into cafes just before our lips became too numb to say “Double Americano.”
We stumbled back to our room at 4:30 and sprawled on the bed, riding out the protracted coffee buzz and subsequent crash. Seven o’clock found us huddled under the covers, watching YouTube videos on my laptop. Finally I turned to Brint. “This is the most pathetic thing. We have to get out of here.”
“You’re right,” he agreed, eyes not leaving the screen. “We should probably eat.” Thirty minutes later we layered up and dragged down the icy street until we found a suitable place — a cafe that served only pie and coffee.
When Brint and I started dating seven years ago, coffee was one of the things we bonded over. He had abstained for years, after a serious bout with adrenal exhaustion, but was slowly adding vices back into his repertoire. Our first morning together, we nibbled chocolate and sipped wine out of tiny glasses, then walked to a café, ordered double Americanos and shared a fat, buttery bear claw. Afterwards Brint smoked one of his slim Nat Sherman cigarillos. It was a ritual—minus the wine -- repeated frequently during those first heady months.
Our shared hedonism had much to do with relationships that had just ended, each of which had become sensual deserts. But after a year or two, our appetites stabilized. Brint quit drinking, then smoking. I never smoked, but I cut my drinking back -- way back -- to the occasional glass of wine. Despite this latent virtuousness, we agreed there were some pleasures without which there was simply no point in getting up in the morning. Coffee and chocolate—preferably in tandem -- were among them.
And yet a shadow loomed, as dark as French roast. Around this time my sister warned me: “You know, our aunt says Grable women can’t tolerate coffee as we age.” They, I thought. Not me.
Yet even then, at 35-ish, coffee had begun to do me wrong. My new roommate Christie's Italian-Canadian ex-husband had trained her to make ultra-potent French press coffee the way he liked it—with four fingers of ground beans. The brew was black as Guinness, and shot me through the roof every morning. There were minor, but persistent symptoms: a plugged-up sensation in my ears, paired with sensitivity to noise. A jumpy, anxious stomach. The inability to focus or sit still. It was fine if I had to do something physical. But such nervous energy clashed with a morning at my computer. Then there was the inevitable crash: a lethargy so complete I could barely make it from one yawn to the next. Of course, there was only solution: more coffee.
By the time Brint and I moved in together a year later, I had to face the fact that my genetic heritage might be catching up with me. I swore off coffee and drank (almost) nothing but Chai for twenty months. With a few exceptions: I would order coffee when writing in cafes, most notably Caffé Trieste* in Sausalito, which served the most sublime cappuccinos to ever touch my lips. Though made hastily by the beleaguered barista, who could barely keep up with the traffic, it was always the perfect balance of yin and yang: a thick, bitter base with an angelic cap of foam, into which I swirled one packet of Sugar in the Raw, leaving just a few crunchy crystals on top.
And therein lies the crux: I will never wax rhapsodic about tea, which, for all my doctoring, tastes like flavored water. Coffee tastes like food and sin and sex.
I love everything about it. The feel of beans in my hands--their weight, their smoothness; the naughty way they’re slightly wet and sticky. The heady scent. Their chocolatey hue. The paraphernalia, whether the French press with its druggie plunger or the elegant, hourglass-shaped espresso pot. Even the lowly drip machine evokes a fond nostalgia. It was, in high school, a gateway through which I entered a richer, more decadent world.
Though my preferred poison is a strong double Americano (cream, no sugar), I’m no coffee snob. Some of the most memorable joe I’ve ever sipped was filtered through a bandana by the shore of a magnificent alpine lake. I’m even fond of godawful diner coffee — that weak, charred brew that requires at least two packets of sugar and three cuplets of fake cream to make palatable, served in homely, stained, cream-colored mugs.
Don’t talk to me about decaf, or limiting myself to just one cup. Believe me; I’ve tried all possible variations. I’ve tried all the alternatives, too: Teccino, mate, bancha, chai. Green tea, black tea, Earl Gray. I’ve even gone ascetic, starting my day with warm water and lemon. My predictable pattern is to devote myself to one of these inferior stand-ins. I even convince myself that I like the taste of steeped twigs, that I don’t mind the residue of soggy lawn clippings at the bottom of my mug. And admittedly, I do feel better. Calmer. Less homicidal.
But then one morning, more or less without warning, I rebel, and dig the secret stash from the freezer. Inhale deeply, taking in the beans’ dizzying scent before giving them to the grinder. My heart quickens in anticipation as the four minutes tick slowly by. And after that first sip, a greedy grin spreads across my mug. Give this up? What was I thinking?!
By the time Brint and I returned home from Portland we’d fallen completely off the wagon, blowing through two carafes every morning. We both work from home, so we had to suffer the consequences of coffee not only on ourselves, but on each other.
One morning Brint dragged into the living room, which doubles as my office. I quickly minimized the YouTube video I was watching, of a man hugging a lion. “What’s wrong?” I snapped, irritated at the interruption.
“Must. Take. Nap,” he mumbled. “What’s wrong with you?”
“The refrigerator’s whining,” I said, through gritted teeth. “Can’t you hear it? It’s piercing my brain.”
“You know, we have to stop.”
“I know,” I said, suddenly sober. Our little fling was over.
Here’s the thing: I’m giving up more than the ritual, the scent, the taste. When I drink just the right amount of coffee, I’m imbued with an energetic optimism. The gears click. Ideas flow, as does confidence. Without coffee I write like a plodding mule, dutifully carrying word after word to the page. It’s satisfying, but definitely feels like work, whereas writing on coffee feels more like magic: wave a wand; paragraphs appear. But more and more, every hour of java-driven prose means half a day of spinning out. It isn’t worth it.
Most of all, I’m giving up coffee because I don’t want to ruin my relationship with the lovely bean. I’d hate for my positive associations to be replaced with symptoms—irritability, headaches, anxiety. I’d hate to grow…bitter.
I’m not kidding myself. I know I’ll fall off the wagon again. One day I’ll walk into a café, intending to order Chai. I’ll pretend to ignore the transparent chutes funneling beans into the waiting maws of the industrial grinders, and the high whine that can only mean one thing: that my little cup of crack is nearly ready.
*The name technically changed to Taste of Rome during my tenure there, but I always thought of it as the Trieste.