One Coffee, Cream and Equal.

Two coffee rings were staining the table, but only two. They did not bleed into each other. They did not intersect, tangle, or make a Venn diagram; that would imply that there was some solution to be found. And what was more curious, one was a fading shade of black whilst the other had clearly been infused with cream. This was also the circle surrounded by sugar.

No, not sugar…sucralose. A candy-coated lie, a sweet taste that when dissolved in the mouth leaves the putrid flavor of happiness turned sour. Still, he preferred this over drinking his coffee bitter because he would rather feel surrounded by the illusion of comfort. Pillows, warmth, sweetness, that sort of thing.

And then there was black. Just black, nothing else. A shadow that had been, a reminder of what remained. A dark, empty, cold thing. Had the two rings of their morning ritual formed a sort of diagram, hers would easily have eclipsed him. As it was, the black ring was bigger. Fully formed. Independent. Stronger.

He still needed the comfort of sweetness to hold him in place. Perhaps that’s just the way it was. He had come out of his maker no different, having been brewed with just the right blend of courage, tenderness, love. But when his maker broke, that’s when he found himself turning to sugar. No, not sugar…that damn dreaded sucralose.

In many respects, this is what had increased the divide. He had been aware of the bitterness at first, though it came in subtle doses. The gradual increments of something new in the mix, a change of taste, the adding of clouds like magical swirls to cover the treachery of angry skies and black, soulless depths. Eventually, he had withdrawn from the way he used to prefer it: Real. Independent. Strong.

Of course he would make the excuse that it wasn’t the same sort of bitterness, this sucralose habit. There was something there. Something that just hit the right spot. Perhaps it was the tamer shade, the gentler side of things that kept him going for a while and masked the sour pain of it all, and the only thing that reminded him of its existence was the horrid aftertaste. Just a hint, that’s all. Nothing to be scared of.

“I like my coffee with cream and Equal just fine, thank you very much.”

But the truth of it was that these two coffee rings in their composition could not have been any more different, and this is what he had secretly feared. That somehow, that sour bite of bitterness was waiting to attack him at just the right moment. It was still there, after all. The evidence was conclusive, and he also knew this because of the morning he had grown desperate. A dark morning, a morning independent from the rest of the summer season. A Thursday morning. This morning.

It was the same morning he just so happened to have run out of decaf, excuses, Equal, and clean coffee mugs. All the same, she had run out of patience, resolve, sick days, and caffeinated blends. In haste, he had woken up only ten minutes prior to her alarm going off before realizing they were out, so he quickly drove to the nearest convenience store and came home to create quite the destructive brew. Cleaned two mugs. One bigger, one smaller. He gave her the former.

That’s when he remembered there was no Equal left. Drove to the store again. She would be late for work, but he needed it. Craved the comfort. Had to have it or else. It was the sort of sweetness he expected. He could deal with the false notion of aftertaste, the brand of bitter that was acceptable. Better than her brand of morning bitterness, anyway.

Returned home. Coffee was cold, but the strength was still there. No, not his strength…her strength. Bittersweet, codependent.

And just like that—without a word nor a whisper—she angrily grabbed up her mug from the table, poured the decaffeinated brew out in the sink, snatched the keys from his hand, and smartly slammed the door behind her.

That morning, he drank his coffee cold. Cold as their hearts, cold as the snow that now fell from the clouds, colder than comfort had ever been. But at least he had his sucralose.

He smirked at the rings a moment before wiping them away and picked up the phone to call his father.

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