Outside, the sky is a tender blue. Light seeps through the blinds, diffusing gradually—a ponderous vapor, an azure dust of dreams. If lapis lazuli could effloresce, it would resemble the dawn.
Time to get out of bed. Time to, à la Joyce, “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience” and, if I’m feeling up to it, “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”1 Or perhaps not. My body is a misshapen sack of oil. Sleeping, it’s a weighted balloon, an anvil afloat on the horizon.
I crawl out from under the covers, crane my neck, peer through the window. The moon is stationed silently over the smoldering heavens. Wasn’t it Bukowski who said this? “Love is a fog that burns with the first daylight of reality.”2 It spilled out of his mouth during an interview. He seemed embarrassed, looking away while sucking on a cigarette with a protective smile and narrowed eyes. If love is a fog that burns, I wonder where its ashes go.
In the kitchen, blinking away dreamfog, I fill the Moka pot with water. Grind the beans, twist the dial on the stove, sit down on the only chair—a black Stefan from IKEA—and glance outside. Harsh white streetlamps, shining like synthetic stars, lacerate the hour’s softness. I clench my jaw. Their unholy artifice brings out the romantic in me. I try to remind myself that, “until streetlights, being up late meant wandering town in butt-clenching terror, tripping over stray animals until the wind blew out your lantern and you were set upon by armed bandits.”3 What was pure darkness like? I picture a sky like a black carpet on which an ostentatious god flaunted his diamonds. Light pollution means most cities are starless. We’ve managed to turn light itself into a waste product.
The Moka pot rattles, spilling fresh coffee onto the element. I lurch over to the stove as an aroma like caramelized onions tries to seduce me. In the bedroom, I slurp loudly, relishing the taste of charred chocolate. I’m accustomed to this ritual. I anticipate with an eagerness bordering on faith the moment it induces a word inside of me. Without this little nudge, this chemical propulsion, the engine of my brain sputters but doesn’t start. I push the heavy vehicle uphill—gasping, irritable, an undercaffeinated Sisyphus. There’s no denying it: I need coffee to get into gear, to kick-start my imagination. Besides, I have it on good authority that coffee is “the milk of chess-players and thinkers.”4 Balzac, its patron-saint, wrote that “coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects.”5 He also consumed a staggering fifty cups a day. Should I be listening to a man who would wake up at 1:00 am to write and died of heart failure at 51? I rinse away any misgivings with a mouthful of java. Another slurp yields notes of toasted almond with a hint of demons.
In his treatise “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee,” Balzac theorizes that upon consumption of coffee, “sparks shoot up to the brain.” He says that coffee “roasts your insides” and claims to know an artist who was “burned to death by coffee.” Without coffee, says Balzac, one lives a “cryptogamous” life—in other words, the life of a plant that does not produce flowers or seeds. His words lay bare a vicious irony, for coffee brings one man to life while killing another. Coffee is both vampiric and selfless. It contains multitudes. Coffee is a beautiful woman and a quiet man alone together in a room, afraid of touching. Sufí mystics were among coffee’s first devotees, swallowing it to stay awake during midnight religious ceremonies. Millennia later, a sophomore shovels dry Nescafé into his mouth on the eve of a final. In 17th-century London, coffeehouses were nicknamed ‘penny universities’ and nourished democracy. Today’s coffeehouses are littered with laptops. A penny will not get you much at Starbucks.
I glance behind me. The sky is brighter now, the moon a scarcely visible outline, like a tardy ghost. As the sun rises, reborn—the perennial Christ—it banishes the bashful blue of dawn. Isn’t it curious? A blue so fraught with darkness it’s almost purple; a yellow-orange orb rising like God himself from the abyss. On his deathbed, the painter J.M.W. Turner exclaimed “The sun is God,” burst out laughing and died.6 Look up at dawn. Witness the interplay of indigo and fire. Observe a primordial struggle between darkness and the Lord. Coffee has no answers. Its allegiances are undisclosed, like a liquid Switzerland. It lies crouched at the heart of this conflict—poised, agnostic, a prayer in another language, a paradox scrawled onto a wall.
I finish the cup, eager to avoid cryptogamy. The grains at the bottom of the mug resemble virgin nebulae—the dust of stars. Coffee eulogizes light. It’s an homage to oblivion, an unsettling love letter to the void. I drink it quietly.
- James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), 253.
- Charles Bukowski, “Charles Bukowski – Love is a fog,” Die Blume, May 13, 2011, video, 0:31.
- Jesse Barron, “Letter of Recommendation: Segmented Sleep,” The New York Times Magazine, March 13, 2016.
- Aytoun Ellis, The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (London: Secker & Warburg, 1956), 2.
- Honore de Balzac, “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee,” Michigan Quarterly Review XXXV, no. 2 (Spring 1996), 273-277, doi.
- Kate Kellaway, “Mike Leigh on Mr Turner: ‘He was an enigmatic character – conflicted. He was so driven. He never stopped,’” The Guardian, October 5, 2014.
— Ata Zargarof is a writer of Iranian descent living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Braided Way, Literally Stories and Microfiction Monday Magazine. You can follow his literary escapades at endlesswriter.com.