I heard the coffee first, a gurgling fountain of sound emanating from the kitchen. With sleep still swaddling me, only my bare feet were awake enough to follow its call down the hall and around the corner. Like an old Pepé Le Pew cartoon, the scent of the coffee floated across the room in a thin undulating cloud, stretching until it tickled my nostrils. Good morning, coffee.
My awareness, trailing behind me or still curled in the bed sheets perhaps, caught up and slipped into place. If the coffee was brewing, my husband must have risen first. I glanced past the coffee pot and saw him slouched there in the comfortable club chair, his hips scooched almost to the end of the seat, one leg crossed on top of the other. Wifely thoughts: he’s going to get a backache sitting like that. Readers perched on his nose, eyes on his iPad, he hasn’t noticed my entrance. I know he’s reading the news, catching up on emails. He takes his time these days, Sleep is often illusive to him, not going to sleep but staying asleep. He usually drops off well before I do, right before he leans over to my side for a kiss. Within minutes his breath has fallen into a regular, slow rhythm. I often awaken once in the middle of the night but I don’t know why. I pay attention to the sounds inside the house: the quiet tells me our son is out or asleep. He said he’d be in by midnight but he almost never makes it by then; he’s twenty-two and recently graduated, hasn’t lived at home in several years and not used to broadcasting his whereabouts to his mother. I wonder if I should get up and see if his door is closed. He always sleeps with it closed, a sure sign that he’s in for the night. Then I argue with myself: that’s ridiculous, he’s fine, and if he’s not home he’s probably better off staying where he is. Then I worry: what if he went off the road somewhere, what if he’s missing?
The house is quiet. I’m almost sure our son is home, asleep. Then I realize that my husband’s breathing is quiet. I don’t hear the whistle that his nose sometimes makes when he inhales deeply. He’s probably awake. I don’t say anything in case he’s on the verge of sleep. And if we start talking, I won’t be able to go back to sleep.
When I’m up first, which is most days, my husband offers to refill my coffee. I should return the favor. Without thinking, I pull a flowered ceramic cup from the cabinet, one of a set we purchased in Bisbee, Arizona from a local potter, Sonja something. The town, described as an artist’s colony, was romantic, although not in the way I’d expected. I imagined Southwestern sunsets in a quaint restored town, the Old West but with better coffee. We decided to follow the snowbirds south during a particularly rainy January in Northern California. Bisbee, that January, was freezing. It actually snowed. The wind whistled – it actually whistled — down the narrow lane that shot precariously up the hill, rising so nearly vertical that it reminded me of those paintings of San Francisco where the streets appear to bend at a ninety degree angle and head straight for a vanishing point in the sky. How could the cars stay on it? That’s the joke, of course. The artist – Thiebaud I think – has managed to capture what the eye sees, but exaggerated it so much that the image turns comic. Now I remember. The ceramic mugs we purchased that day were a pattern called Poco Loco.
The coffee maker finishes brewing in a final whoosh of steam as if to say “ta da!” Still blinking in the bright kitchen light, I notice that the dark liquid only comes up to the eight cup mark. I usually make ten cups since we have a third coffee drinker in the house these days. I carry the mug to the refrigerator, noticing how the smooth indentation at the top of the handle cradles the pad of my thumb. Without thinking, I pour a half inch of milk into Todd’s cup and start toward the microwave. And stop.
This was what I did for my father every morning. He liked the milk warmed for twenty seconds before the coffee was added. If you didn’t warm the milk first, you’d have to reheat it, he said. Whenever I forgot, he would rise from the table, cane in his right hand, coffee cup in his left, starting toward the microwave. Sometimes he would have made it from the kitchen table to the center before I rushed in to take over. Dad, here, let me! He would assure me that he was perfectly happy to do it himself – perfectly capable – but his unsteady walk said differently. He walked slowly, his right bicep flexing as he shifted his weight onto the cane; that side was sturdy enough. It was the left side that couldn’t be trusted. On that side, he still had to concentrate to achieve a natural stride. Swing it all the way forward and strike with the heel, the P.T. had coached him. When he didn’t consciously swing it, the sole of his sturdy walkers made contact with the floor too soon, turning the forward movement into a shuffle. His shoulder dipped as his left thigh muscle bore his weight and gave a little. From the back, he looked like he was limping.
Milk in a flowered ceramic mug, microwaved for twenty seconds, then two packets of Equal, and then coffee. That was the recipe. This morning, half asleep, I started to prepare it the same way for my husband. When I carried it to him in his chair, I realized he already had a cup. Two cups of coffee is better than one, I said. He slept well, didn’t wake up once. A rare morning.