The Significance of One Coffee

Life outside my window used to be bland and grim yet somehow exceedingly reminiscent of food. Even on the grayest of days, some kind of mouthwatering smell would always waft in. Waffles. Honey-roasted nuts. Hot chocolate in the winter. Mimosas, mangoes, and citruses in the summer. Reminding me of all that I had once loved and eaten. 

Sounds accompanied these scents. Honking and chatter, sirens and footsteps. Music sometimes, but rarely. Mimosas and hot chocolate always paired with chatter. Waffles came with the exhaust of the morning rush; honey-roasted nuts in the afternoon with sirens interspersed throughout, the wails accumulating at night. 

My nose had gotten exceedingly sensitive once I stopped eating. Never before had I noticed those smells or those sounds. And then, it seems I was paralyzed with envy as I stared out into the street, sitting with a blanket on the windowsill next to my heater. My body was paralyzed by cold, my mind by envy and thoughts of food. Making food, giving food, cutting up food, but never eating it.

It got worse when people started eating outdoors. Now the smells of restaurants across the street would spill further into the air, along with the sounds of laughter and chatter. Fondue. Fresh bread. Butter. Steak. Life outside my window became more animated, but still seemed gray to me, or maybe green, tinged by my envy. Sage-colored.

I used to bake. Milk bread, brioche, baguettes, focaccia. But I could never get the hang of sourdough. My starter would never come to life, reminding me of my inadequacy. I tried a few times and gave up, returning to the beige yeast granules that listened to my every command. The dough always doubled in size in two hours in summer, four hours in winter. It felt so smooth, so alive, so strong. Airy, too. The rising and browning in the oven, slicing it open after waiting hours for it to cool—every step was just so. 

What I liked the most was giving bread to my friends. I wouldn’t tell them before we hung out, just wordlessly hand them a loaf wrapped in paper towels or plastic when we met. Their eyes would widen, they would put their nose to the bread, and we’d break out in smiles and hug.

I stopped baking after I stopped eating. Every day I would think of bread, think of my friends’ reactions to the bread, my lips forming into a thin smile. But I didn’t hang out with them anymore. I didn’t want them to see what I looked like. And even if I did, I couldn’t bake because maybe I wouldn’t be able to resist the bread. I was more afraid of bread than I was of death. 

I’d pour fresh-brewed coffee into my mug, no cream or sugar, and sit on my windowsill and watch people. I would look out and feel very tired or feel nothing. Sometimes I would pour the coffee into a paper cup to feel its scalding heat on my palms. The heat provided a welcome contrast to the cold numbness of my body. It would fill my stomach like an aggressive hug squeezing away the gnawing as I clenched my hands to stop them from shaking.

I still like to imagine that the smell of my black coffee wafts outside the window. My coffee is probably inconsequential, a wisp of fragrance in the thick air of the city. It is nothing compared to the cheese fondue of the French restaurant across the street. But it comforts me to know that it changes the city’s smell. Without it, the air might smell a little less earthy, a little bit more acrid. 

And that makes me smile.

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