March 25, 2021 | Narrative
comfort against the cold and other biting sensations
The sound: a soft gurgle, a sharp hiss, followed by a steady pit-pat, like rain from a spout. The smell: dark and bitter, yet warm against my nose—second only to the taste, which bites when black and dances when there’s cream.
It’s difficult to pinpoint my first experience with coffee. It might’ve been when I was 12, sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and aunt, listening to the morning radio while sneaking sips from their cups. It might’ve been earlier—say when I was seven years old, waking up to shimasani’s (my grandmother’s) morning brew. The beginning of my relationship with coffee exists somewhere in my braided memory, knotted and stitched with the patterns of similar comforting experiences. Everyone loves to ask the “coffee or tea” question, pitting two drinks against each other in the ultimate battle of comfort. And while tea is steeped in silken ease and honey sundrops, no matter the occasion, my answer is coffee.
Earlier this month, much to everyone’s surprise, it snowed again. I had planned to meet up with a friend, maybe get through some school work, maybe watch the latest Attack on Titan episode. But then the snow crept in. As I stepped outside, it stuck to my hair and attempted to sneak past my facemask. Providence weather doesn’t usually catch me off guard—not anymore. But this day’s weather—the delicate snow with its low whispers, a hushed blanket pulled over Brown’s campus—tugged at my heart. Whenever I need to be comforted, I rely on two hot (always, always hot) drinks: hot chocolate and coffee. When I don’t feel like a person, I need something warm in my hands to ground me. So, I turn to hot chocolate. It is just scalding and sweet enough to make me feel present. When I don’t want to be a person, I need something warm to remind me that life is worth living. Coffee gets the job done—warm and filled to the brim with frothy memories. As the snow turned everything still, silencing the rush of oncoming traffic, emphasizing the sound of my breathing, a familiar ache twisted in my stomach: homesickness, loneliness, maybe a tinge of nostalgic grief. To ease these mounting emotions, I entered the nearest cafe and ordered a large hot coffee.
Back home, there’s always a pot of coffee ready. Whether I’m at shimasani’s, my aunt’s, or my mother’s house, it sits patiently waiting on the counter. Each morning, they all start the pot and leave it running for anyone who wants a cup. Before her death, my grandmother used to drink her morning coffee on the front porch. She would only stay inside, near the fireplace, during the winter. My cheii (grandfather) wasn’t much of a coffee drinker, but he’d still sit with her before they had to part for their respective household jobs: shimasani to the field and my cheii either to his homemade workshop or joining my shimasani in the field. Their morning coffee came with a small bowl of sugar, white and decorated with pink swirls. I don’t remember creamer, but I’m sure they used milk as a substitute. In my family, making coffee for others is its own love language. I can imagine my grandparents sharing a pot, pouring each other’s cups, the slight curve of a smile sitting at the edge of their lips. As I sip my own coffee in the morning, I fondly remember preparing cups for my mother and younger sisters, a beloved moment stitched together with warmth and sugar-sweet endearment.
I remember rising to the smell of rich coffee grounds, eyelids tugged open by the soft spitting and sputtering of the pot. My siblings and I would groan and stretch, watching as our mother poured a cup for herself. We were small—maybe seven, maybe ten—and were at that age when older people tsked and shook their heads, saying, “Nope. You’re too little for coffee.” We all thought coffee was akin to alcohol, another drink we were too young to have. Of course, our family loved to mess with our naivety. So we didn’t get our own cups then, but we’d sneak sips from our mother’s worn mug, enjoying the little rush of doing something you’re not supposed to do but still getting away with it. Our mom preferred her coffee sweet—super sweet. So sweet that it satisfied my ten-year-old sugar cravings, but now, eleven years later, overwhelms my matured tongue. I joke that she might as well be drinking sugar from the bag. I don’t know how her teeth can handle it.
We never stole sips from our Auntie Angie’s cup. Everyone knew she liked her coffee black, and we didn’t want the bitter taste to stick to our mouths all day. My Auntie Angie has been drinking black coffee for as long as I could remember. The smell of sharp coffee grounds always filled her trailer and lingered on the lining of her work clothes, nearly cutting the tip of my nose. I consider it a physical representation of her maturity: If there was a list of requirements for adulthood, “likes black coffee” would be in the top five.
There is only one other person in my family that drinks black coffee: my younger sister—in fact, my youngest sister—Sarah. Sarah-Raven (as we endearingly call her) just started drinking black coffee recently. It was unexpected. Imagine my surprise when my ten-year-old sister grabbed a mug from the cabinet and, instead of making hot chocolate, poured herself a cup from the coffee pot. She sat at the kitchen table, took a sip, and had the nerve to ahhh appreciatively—as if she was remembering the taste from another life. If I had to guess, I’d say Sarah likes black coffee because a certain character (Five) in a certain TV show (The Umbrella Academy) also drinks his coffee black. He snacks on peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches, something my sister also does. When I asked, she shrugged her shoulders and looked off to the side, “So what? It tastes good.” And honestly, who am I to judge? I started drinking Arizona Sweet Tea because a kid back in high school said it was his favorite gas station drink. I prefer hazelnut creamer because it’s my mother’s favorite, despite the fact that I can’t actually taste the difference. There’s a soothing and satisfying feeling that comes from sharing in another person’s comforts.
Coffee at Brown has been just as much a comfort to remind me of home as an avenue for exploration. I didn’t drink iced coffee back home. My first real experience with iced coffee was in the Blue Room. For me, coffee had always been prepared and served hot. I’d seen iced coffee at Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, but we didn’t visit those places enough for me to try it. Iced coffee felt unreal to me, sort of mythical. When I finally gained the courage to visit the Blue Room a second time, as my first ended with a panic attack (the poppy-seed muffin and hot chocolate calmed me down after), I ordered the mysterious iced coffee with cream and sugar. I was instantly hooked. My sophomore year, I got iced coffee from the Blue Room every day after class. I drank iced coffee so much that my closest friend, Roslyn, would send me iced coffee memes on Instagram. She’d message me with, “Danielle + iced coffee duo is unstoppable (flexing arm emoji),” and, “Hahaha *replaces meals w/ a blueroom coffee* smh (crying laughing emoji),” under screenshotted Tumblr posts. By this point, it’s become a light inside joke. During last year’s COVID summer, I made iced coffee regularly with my roommate, Laney. We’d brew it hot in the morning and store it in the fridge to cool. But, despite my explorations, nothing provides more comfort than the gentle, creamy, kindheartedness of hot coffee. Whenever I feel untethered and homesick, I brew a fresh cup of coffee or order a random latte from Starbucks (because the complex menu overwhelms me) to remove the weight from my chest. Coffee—both its taste and its long seam of memories—reminds me to breathe. This vivid thread will follow me well through my life because coffee promises to be there, always.