The coffee cup warmed my right hand and its content had burned my tongue. The black liquid tasted bitter, leaving me thirsty. I sat alone in a crowded library, all the way in the back. My companion Steppenwolf laid open in front of me.
Coffee is an acquired taste. I tried drinking my dad’s coffee when I was thirteen, but the bitterness made me spit it out in the sink, the brown saliva dribbling down the corner of my mouth. I scrunched up my face in disgust; my dad laughed. When I was home for Christmas last winter break, I gulped down two cups a day of my mom’s java to get through the day. I don’t remember when I started enjoying the stuff.
Acquired taste doesn’t imply good taste. My coffee palate is somewhere between undeveloped and nonexistent. I’ll take a one-dollar Wawa coffee over a small cup of premium-priced caffè; my taste for having a positive balance in my checking account overrides my taste for good coffee. My buddy Tim laughs at me because he knows I couldn’t tell the difference between a café au lait and Caffè Americano if a date with Olivia Wilde depended on it.
“A Red Eye?” Tim chided me when I ordered one at Elixir, a hip café in downtown Philly where only the un-hip order fake drinks like Red Eyes. “Only un-hip people order a fake drink like a Red Eye.” The hipsters sitting next to us overheard him and nodded in agreement, stroking their well-trimmed scruff.
And they’re right. The coffee in my hand at that moment in the library was cheap, sixteen-ounce Wawa coffee, hardly the drink of connoisseurs. Like I gave a fuck, I said to myself, sitting in my seat and taking in the surroundings. I just needed coffee, and it was my second cup of the day.
I heard the bleak murmurs of the organic chemistry students studying at a table next to mine; they discussed in hushed voices Benzene or Benzema, most likely Benzene. At another table, a girl talked on her phone, her eyes wandering.
“I don’t know, I don’t know. I just don’t feel the same way about it anymore. I can’t do OCR.” OCR stands for “On Campus Recruitment,” a time in the spring when companies from start-ups to Goldman Sachs come to Penn to recruit students.
I glanced at the girl, whose hair was in a ponytail. She wore a dark blue blouse and black suit jacket and pants. A strand of light brown hair had fallen onto her face. The look on her face clashed with her well-kept shoes. Her brown eyes met mine, and I looked away. She lowered her voice and I could no longer hear what she was saying.
I took a big sip of coffee. I sometimes forgo a meal to drink the dark, caffeinated sludge instead because I don’t have the time to sit down and wolf down food. I need the caffeine kick; the edible stuff, not so much. All hail the sludge, I declared silently.
I looked over at the girl on her phone again. Her body had sunk into the chair, and she said nothing and only nodded. I noticed that she, too, had coffee in one of her hands.
I closed Steppenwolf and pulled out two books from my green backpack: Bleak House and an AP US government book. One was for class, the other was study material for the upcoming Foreign Service Officers Test in June. I had a couple more to pull out of my backpack when those were done. The orgo students had moved on from Benzene to Cyanohydrin Formations, but they were in it for the long haul, too.
There’s not enough coffee in the world to get me through this, I thought, and I turned on my phone. The LCD screen of the iPhone displayed a picture seventeen years ago of my dad and me, and the phone’s clock read “12:53”. I had class at three-thirty, but I’d be back in the library afterwards. The orgo students would probably be there when I came back.
I sighed and prepared to buckle down. I decided to see how the girl in the suit jacket was doing for the last time. Another girl accompanied her, and the newcomer talked in a stern voice. She didn’t care that those nearby could hear her.
“I’m here for you, you know that? I know OCR’s tough, and I know classes are tough, and I know it’s easy to feel alone. Just let me know when it’s tough, and I’ll be here for you to talk to you and try to make it easier for you. I love you, Sarah. We’ve been friends since, fuck, second grade? Remember when we became friends because you saw me crying in the bathroom because Kath called me ugly? Remember that?” Sarah nodded and let out a wet laugh.
“Fuck this shit, Sarah. Let’s go grab some ice cream. On me. And those OCR assholes can suck it, because you’ve had enough coffee for the day and you’ve stressed yourself out enough for a day. It’s not worth it. Let’s get outta here, okay?” The two got up, arm in arm, and made their way to the exit. Left behind was the cup of coffee.
My eyes followed them until they left the building and I couldn’t see them anymore. I stared at Bleak House and the AP book in front of me. I pushed them to the side and pulled out my Kindle. I got up and threw out the rest of the Wawa coffee. When I sat back down, I opened Catch-22 and laughed my ass off for the next hour reading the chapter about Lieutenant Scheisskopf.