ERIN DONOVAN

Decaffeinated is a tough way to go through life

Posted Sept. 05, 2012, at 4:24 p.m.
Erin Donovan
Erin Donovan

I don’t drink coffee.

When I tell this to people, they react as though I’ve revealed that I like to set fire to photo calendars of naked babies sleeping on lily pads. I never meant for coffee to become the cause célèbre of my life; I just never acquired a taste for it.

It wasn’t for lack of trying either. I’ve tried on several occasions to enjoy a cup of Joe. But, see, even in writing “cup of Joe,” I find my pulse quickening in response to the anxiety that surrounds caffeinated lexicon. I’m not sure if I’ve spelled Joe right. If it is capitalized? If it should be written “cuppa” instead of “cup of?” Why is it even called Joe? Is it a cup of Joseph if it’s poured into a fancy cup?

Long seduced by the spicy habits of older kids, those in my life and on my television, I could often be found taking a long drag from a pretzel stick perched loosely between my pointer and middle finger. I’d let the invisible billow of smoke escape my lips while I did my best to look tired and disaffected. And not bloated with sodium.

It was the same story with coffee. In high school, I toted a portable coffee mug to my classes, drawing cautious sips from it whenever the teacher directed a question my way. I’d narrow my eyes at the class as the liquid slid down my throat as if to say, “I may still be using Clearasil, but I like coffee. And I like it strong.” The only thing more laughable than my answers to the problems of advanced physics was the fact that my mug held only water.

College was no better. Every study group I joined, which were several considering I was the most intellectually handicapped of the pre-meds, came with a coffee mandate. I kept my eye closely trained on the sub-groupings of students, applying my deductive reasoning to parse the non-javas from the rest. I knew to avoid most of the American guys. They were imbibing coffee the way an addict indulges in heroin, hopeful the rocket fuel might launch the human physiology right into their brains. The girls were scant better since they used their oversized coffee mugs to shield their notes as though they contained the nuclear launch codes instead of the organic chemistry equations I was even less likely to know what to do with. I steered clear of the Persians since they hailed from the cradle of coffee. The Europeans were a losing choice since they were rarely compelled to leave the campus coffee shop to attend class. The Indian kids wanted nothing to do with me, knowing I was the very personification of dead weight regardless of whether I could assimilate their coffee culture.

In the end, coffee is why I landed in a study group of two Tibetan exchange students and a Mormon. And why I never went to medical school.

For a brief time in my 20s, my aversion to coffee worked in my favor. Men interested in asking me out would tentatively offer a casual first meeting over coffee. Knowing that I was going to have a difficult time constructing the facade of a self-possessed career woman if I had to order a hot chocolate, I would frankly tell them that I didn’t drink coffee. Dinner was counter-offered, which I graciously accepted since the only thing I was worse at than coffee was cooking.

My run of good luck continued when I began reporting to a boss who only took his coffee black. At last, I was liberated from complex decisions between creamers, set free from the do-it-yourself table of sticks and spoons and powders that purport to be sugar but are not sugar. I could finally look at that barista directly in the eye, buttressed by the je ne sais quoi that comes with placing an order encapsulated and delivered in one word only: Black.

The ordering of black coffee is never met with any questions, as everything the person behind the counter must know to complete your drink is assumed. It would never be decaf. Of course it should be a large cup. What’s fair trade? Don’t even dream of putting one of those cardboard sleeves around it because we’ve been drinking coffee warmed to 220 degrees directly out of our palms since we’ve been out of diapers.

My coffee phobia further abated with the advent of the Keurig machine. With the addition of a simple appliance to my wedding registry, years of hot beverage paralysis were undone and no longer did I try to asphyxiate myself with a paper filter while my guests sat coffeeless in the other room. No more did I need to warn people who had come to stay to bring their own coffee (and dinner). I could insert a cup, and with the push of a few buttons, watch coffee slosh into the mug. When I remembered to put it there.

It occurred to me recently that I might actually like coffee if I were to try it now. After all, I grew into minivans and farmers markets. Perhaps a taste for coffee had crept up on me, too.

I decided to test my theory. I stood in line at the neighborhood coffee shop, straining to discern the menu, which was written entirely in calligraphy. I prayed that the selection of cup sizes would be offered in English instead of a romance language. I shuffled toward the counter as the person in front of me issued one of those lengthy coffee orders that makes everyone behind him want to set the world’s arabica fields on fire. His treatise included adjectives about temperature as well as verbs about pumps and stirs.

When the barista, now sweaty from toil over the last order, looked up at me expectantly, I said in a meek voice, “I will have a la…” I faltered. “A lat…”

“A lemon bar.”

Erin Donovan moved with her family to the midcoast where she constantly is told she says the word “scallops” incorrectly. She performs live and produces Web sketches derived from her popular humor blog I’m Gonna Kill Him. Follow her misadventures at imgonnakillhim.bangordailynews.com and on Twitter @gonnakillhim.

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