“The Last Cup of Coffee”

Gabrielle Cordray


I swear my alarm never went off this morning. I opened my eyes and the clock was just sitting there with 7:35 AM printed across its face in bold, mocking numbers. So much for getting to my 8 AM class on time. I threw on clothes, grabbed my backpack, and was in the car in three minutes flat. When I finally found a parking spot and got  to class about 12 minutes late, the teacher was just having the students collaborate on the homework assignment that I stayed up late to finish last night. So now it’s 8:24 AM, my stomach’s being all dramatic and acting like I haven’t eaten in two weeks, and I’m standing in front of a vending machine trying to get some sort of edible breakfast. I know the Danish will taste nothing like the warm, gooey goodness of a real cinnamon-spiced roll, but it’ll be better than nothing. If I can find a microwave to heat it up, it might actually be decent.

I clutch the Danish with just one thought left on my mind: coffee. And not just any coffee, I need my favorite: dark roast with lots of milk and just the right amount of sugar. I close my eyes and inhale. Delicious, fresh coffee, just like what Ethan used to make for me on frigid winter mornings when we’d meet up to study at the library – lingering over the entire conversation was the most wonderful smell in the whole world. My nose tickles me back to reality and I pull the Danish wrapper from my nose. Well, that’s disappointing. Instead of the delicious coffee, I now smell cheap plastic and the less than pleasant odor of the don’t-tell-me-when-this-was-actually-baked Danish. If I’m planning to eat this thing I really need to chase it down with coffee. And I mean quality coffee. I acquired a very refined coffee palate during those few weeks, but don’t blame me, it’s not my fault.

Five months ago I was taking Spanish 3 and trying not to fail miserably. It was time for the midterm and I was not ready for it. I slid into the first empty seat I saw, placed my flimsy styrofoam cup on the desk and extracted my pencil from my pocket.

“Ready for the exam?” A voice startled me out of my confusion.

I locked eyes with the voice. I’d seen him across the room nearly every class period this semester, but I’ve never dared to speak to him. For the first time I noticed that his eyes were a deep hazel, a perfect complement to his short, brown curly hair. I took a deep breath and tried to act as normal as possible. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”

The guy pointed at my coffee cup. “Where did you get that?” He asked with a teasing twinkle in his hazel eyes.

“Oh, I found the instant coffee machine across from the library. It’s a godsend. Coffee on demand and it’s pretty cheap, what could be better?” A lot, actually – because I took my first sip of the coffee and tried not to gag. It was the worst coffee I’d ever tasted in my life, and that’s saying something because I’d drink convenience store coffee without shame.

“Oh yeah, how is it? I hope it’s gotten better since I tried it last.”

Luckily for me, the teacher began the exam. I don’t know what I would have said.

I gave up and turned in the exam seventeen minutes early. I could’ve had all the time in the world to finish the exam and I still wouldn’t have had any idea of how to conjugate those Spanish verbs. Preterite this, subjunctive this, imperfect that — it was enough to drive any normal person crazy. I waited outside the classroom and hoped it wouldn’t be too obvious I was waiting for him to finish.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long. He came out less than five minutes later.

“So, how do you think you did?” I found my voice.

“Alright, I guess. I’m sure I forgot some accent marks. How do you think you did?”

“Ugh, those conjugations totally sucked! I can never remember how to do preterite, and I don’t have a clue what any kind of subjunctive even means.”

“Hey now, it’s not that bad. I could help you, if you’d like, at least give you a chance on the final. You end up finishing the coffee?” He pointed to the cup still in my hand.

The guy with the hazel eyes is offering to help me study? I can’t believe it. “Yeah, I don’t care so much about what my coffee tastes like.”

“That’s ‘cause you haven’t had a real cup of coffee. Tell you what, I’ll go make you the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had in your life, and I’ll meet you in the library in an hour to go over those conjugations. Deal?”

Of course I’d love to – but there’s one small problem. “Sorry, I don’t think I caught your name.”

“Oh, sorry! I’m Ethan,” and he gave me his heart-melting smile.

“I’m Amy. So, the library in an hour? I’m free. Literature class got canceled today.”

“Okay, great! Bring your tastebuds.” Ethan’s teasing wink was back. I watched his figure as he turned and receded down the hallway.

Well, here I am, with an awful Danish and I’m dying for some good coffee. I’ve long since left the realms of ‘want coffee’ and ‘need coffee’ and now I’m squarely in the ‘obsessed with coffee, just give me an IV already’ zone. Luckily, I remember that the over-priced coffee shop is just a couple buildings over. But then I remember that Ethan works at the coffee shop. I turn my steps towards the coffee shop, my shoes clattering out the coffee chant as I walk. Coffee…coffee…coffeee… wow I’ve missed coffee so much. It’s like when you’re trying to wait to eat until you get home to save money, but then you start thinking about food. With all that thinking about food, you inevitably get a huge craving, and now you have to go spend money on food because you can’t possibly think about anything else until you do. I cross the threshold into the building and I’m turning the corner into the shop when I stop short, hesitate, and then hide behind the wall. Is that Tina’s red hair behind the counter laughing and talking with Ethan? Of course it is. That’d be so sweet that the two of them are working the same shift at the same place if it wasn’t so ironic.

Ethan and I had been building a beautiful friendship and he really seemed to like me.

“Hey, Amy,” he called me over after class the day before Thanksgiving.

“Hey!” I enthusiastically returned his greeting and walked over to him out in the hallway. “You look chipper, got something to tell me?” I continued coyly.

“Something to ask you, actually,” he said excitedly. “So I know we haven’t known each other very long, but I’d like to take you out sometime soon, like on a date. What do you say?”

This was the moment I’ve been waiting for the past five weeks, the moment I’ve been dreaming of since I first saw him at the beginning of the semester. But suddenly my mouth went dry and I got all flustered. The butterflies in my stomach must have been too much for me, because the words out of my mouth were: “Yeah, I’ll have to think about it. I’ve got a lot on my plate this semester.”

The look on Ethan’s face sucked the air right out of my lungs. He looked absolutely crestfallen. “Yeah, I understand. Don’t worry about it.”

And before I could open my mouth to respond, to take back what I said, some of his friends came up and whisked him away, talking excitedly about their plans for Thanksgiving. I suddenly became invisible. I went home for the holiday and tried to forget about my colossal mistake.

The next time I saw him was at the Spanish final. I slid into the front row just a minute or two before the exam supposed to start. I got out my pencil, took a look around the room, and saw Ethan a couple rows behind me. He was gesturing me to join him.

I got up and sat next to him. Maybe this was my chance to rectify my error!

“Hey, I haven’t seen you in a couple weeks. How was your Thanksgiving?” I asked, trying to ease into the subject.

“It was pretty good. Went home and my brother and I pretty much just played Mario Kart all weekend. How was yours?”

“I guess it was okay, I don’t remember that it wasn’t anyway.” I forced a light chuckle. “Say, Ethan, about the last time we talked – “

“Hey, don’t worry! I don’t have any hard feelings about that. In fact, I have to thank you. So weird coincidence, do you know Tina, the red-head in the front row, three chairs from the left?”

“Yeah, I know Tina. She was my conversation partner this semester.” I said. No, Ethan, don’t say it. Not if you’re going to say what I think you’re going to say. I don’t want to hear it.

“Really? Anyway, so like I said, weird coincidence, but I ran into her last week, we used to go to high school together. Some odd reason it just now registered that we’re going to the same school and we’re both in this class. Anyway, we hit it off and I asked her out. So, everything worked out.”

“Yeah, I guess everything worked out after all.” I replied. I was spared from any further conversation by the teacher calling the class to order and passing out the exams.

You idiot. My brain screamed at me. You stupid, incompetent idiot. You had your chance and you blew it. Now just take the exam and forget you ever knew him.

******************************************************************************

So here I am at the entrance to the coffee shop and both Ethan and Tina are working right now. Great. I could just leave and get coffee someplace else, or even just go without and deal with the consequences, but why should I? I have nothing to hide. It was just a stupid crush I had last semester and the only thing wrong with this entire situation is me. I should just march up to the counter and get my coffee like any normal person. I peer around the corner again and see Ethan disappear into the back. Perfect. If I’m lucky, Tina won’t recognize me and I’ll be there and gone before Ethan comes back out front. I form my resolve, peel my legs from the floor, and step up to the counter.

The minute I come within eye-shot, Tina exclaims, “Hey Amy, ¿como estás? Fancy seeing you here! Ethan always said you’d turn up someday for the ‘good’ café but I never believed him. Hey, honey! Guess who’s here?” Tina calls to the back.

Oh, great, so much for anonymity. “Oh hi, Tina, I didn’t know you worked here. How long have you had this job?” Maybe I can at least get some information out of her.

“Oh, not long, just since the start of the term. Ethan mentioned there was an opening on our first date but since the semester was basically over they didn’t actually need someone until January.”

So he tried to weasel his girlfriend into work before the first date even ended? That wasn’t very smart, they didn’t even know if their ‘relationship’ would dissolve into morning-after regret. “Yeah, I guess the place is pretty much a ghost town during break.”

Tina laughs and pushes her bouncy red curls away from her face. “Say, I wonder what’s taking Ethan so long. He just went to re-fill the container of dark roast. Hey honey, look who’s here!” Tina repeats just as Ethan emerges from the back.

“I couldn’t find any more, so we’ll just have to make do with the little bit that was already there.” The familiar voice is music to my ears. “Oh, hey Amy, I haven’t seen you in ages! How’ve you been?”

The minute I spot his hazel eyes I know I’m done for. My imagination had tried to morph him into a hideous green-eyed monster with spiky jet-black hair as part of my coping mechanism. But now I see his soul-searching, hazel eyes, and his brown curly hair looks so soft. I mumble something about being really busy and how I’m so glad that spring break is next week because midterms have been terrible. After a few minutes of silence, I get to the point and ask how their relationship is going.

“It’s going great!” Tina chirps enthusiastically. “He is so sweet. He makes me coffee every morning and I’ve loved getting to know his little quirks. You know, a lot of people just see petty annoyances in their special person but I’ve learned to see them as endearing.”

What happened to Tina? Back when I knew her she was usually a sassy, bubbly, personable girl and now she’s completely melted in love. And she’s just getting started. Next, she wraps her short arms around his waist and stands on tiptoe to peck a kiss on his cheek, leaving a very obvious lipstick mark. Ethan smiles and puts his long arm around her tiny body for a few seconds before he straightens himself up and returns to business.

Ugh this is so much more than I wanted to see or hear. Can I just rub bleach in my eyes already? I motion to Ethan to rub the lipstick off his cheek. He tries to find it, but fails. Tina gets a napkin and rubs it off with her tiny dimpled hands.

“So, let me guess: dark roast, and I’ll choose the amount of milk and sugar.” Ethan chimes in to break the awkward silence.

“Aren’t you out of the dark roast?” I point to the near-empty container on the counter in front of him.

He glances down and sizes it up. “There’s still enough for one cup and trust me, I’ll fix it so you don’t notice the difference.”

I waver. I do need the coffee, but I also really need to get out of here. Tina had started a fresh pot of coffee a few minutes prior and now, even though it isn’t my favorite blend, the delicious spice has already reached my nose and settled into my nostrils. The steam wafts against my nose as I inhale and I imagine my perfect cup of coffee: my beautiful, dark roast blend, lots of milk, just the right of sugar. In this hazy fantasy I feel that if I reached out my hand maybe I could touch it, cradle it close, bask in its warmth. All I had to do was say ‘yes, please’ and that reality could be mine. And then I remembered Tina’s loving look of absolute trust towards Ethan, Ethan’s obvious devotion towards her – and I realize that I can’t get in the way of that. It’s over.

I make a split-second decision. “You know what, I’ll let somebody else have it. I just realized I’m starving, so I’m gonna go to Marshall’s cafeteria for breakfast. They’ll have coffee there.”

“You’re not going to eat your Danish?” Ethan points at the wrapped item I’d placed on the counter.

“Yeah, I’m not really feeling the Danish right now. It’s vending machine junk so it’ll probably taste awful anyway. I’ll just keep it for a snack later today.”

I excuse myself, and exit the building.

I immediately regret my decision to turn down the coffee. I need coffee so badly right now. At least I’m heading to the cafeteria. Coffee first, and then food. Breakfast. The thought of food makes me remember just how famished I really am – and I suddenly realized that I forgot the Danish on the coffee counter. Not that I wanted to eat it, but I paid good money for it and it was rather stupid of me to have left it behind. It’s not like cafeteria food is much better, though for some reason it enjoys a better reputation than the vending machine’s sorry excuse for ‘food,’ but that’s probably only because it isn’t necessarily processed to death and meant to last in mummified form for the next two millennia. But still, its food and I’m starving. My stomach’s constant gnawing is zapping my energy and making me feel quite close to a vegetable. If I don’t get food soon, my stomach is going to eat me and then all that will be left will be my swollen, bloated stomach and perhaps part of my intestines.

I enter the big double doors and get in line. Apparently I’m not the only one desperate for sustenance this morning. The cafeteria is abuzz with activity and, when I check my watch, I decide to slide into the food line. Class just got released and there’s about to be a horde of hungry students piling in here all at once. I jealously watch more and more new arrivals opt for the drink bar and cup after cup of the coveted liquid pours into their waiting hands.

I’m finally at the front of the line – so much beautiful-looking food! I know it won’t taste as good as it looks but I’m so hungry I don’t care. I fill up my plate, pay for it, and make a beeline for my coffee fix.

There’s only a couple students in front of me and they’re both choosing milk. Hopefully that doesn’t mean that the coffee’s gotten worse since I was here last. I grab a Styrofoam cup, slide on the fancy sleeve, and prepare to receive the precious liquid. I’m pressing the lever but nothing is happening. I begin to frantically pump the lever – still nothing. I tilt the dispenser to get the last few drops – one, two, three large, watery, grainy drops make their way into my cup. This can’t be happening to me. I catch a staff member’s attention.

“Help! Please, ma’am, will you help me? The coffee’s out and I’m desperate!”

“Out already?” She says nonchalantly. Obviously she hasn’t grasped the situation quite yet. “I’ll let the cooks know we need more but it might be a while.” She doesn’t even wait for a response before she stalks back to the kitchen.

I knew it. I knew I should have just sucked it up and taken the coffee from Ethan. Now I don’t get any coffee this morning. It isn’t fair! I go to sit down with my food and begin to shovel it in my mouth. My stomach is slowly becoming satisfied, but I still keep dreaming about that perfect coffee. My soul remains empty.

All of a sudden the best smell in the world greets my nostrils. Dark roast, lots of milk, sugar – is this really happening? I must have been daydreaming for real this time because I suddenly find myself blinking several times and staring at the source of the smell: a tantalizing coffee cup in front of my food. It’s not from the cafeteria, the sleeve says it’s from the coffee shop. The coffee shop? Why is a coffee shop cup sitting front of my plate in the cafeteria? I raise my head and see Ethan in the chair across from me. I must’ve been really hungry to not even notice an intrusion into my personal space.

He laughs at my puzzled look. “Somebody’s had a rough morning. Feel better now?”

“How the heck did you even get here? Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”

“It’s a slow morning and I asked Tina if she’d take over for a bit. You seemed a little weirded out earlier and I haven’t seen you in ages. Here, drink your coffee.” He nudges the cup closer to me.

I hesitate and start gulping the coffee. I don’t know what to say. Finally, after what seems like thirteen minutes, I put down the cup, take a deep breath, and look him in the eye. “I don’t think this is a good idea. I wanted to say ‘yes’ when you asked me out but the words came out all wrong and now you’re dating Tina. I really appreciate you being thoughtful and bringing me coffee but it’s just too painful to be around you right now. I thought I could do it, but I can’t. I’m sorry.”

Ethan’s nodding slowly and after what seems like an eternity, he speaks: “Yeah. Yeah, I get it. I’m sorry, I kinda figured you weren’t expecting me to ask you and I meant to ask you again after finals, but then my buddies re-introduced me to Tina and everything was just a whirlwind from there.” A few more ages of silence, and then he stands up, walks around to my side of the table, and places his hand on my shoulder. “Well, I should get back to work. Goodbye, Amy. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”

I nod goodbye – and just like that he’s gone. My shoulder still tingles where his hand rested just a few moments ago. I pick up the coffee cup, still half-full and slightly warm. I wrap both hands around it and cradle it to my chest, resting my chin on top of the lid. I need to be careful not to squeeze too tight because spilling it all over me would just be an awful idea right now. It’s really over this time. But at least I got a last cup of coffee – I should really learn how to make it myself.

Fiction piece by Gabrielle Cordray