It isn’t the coffee; it’s me

You know what I loved most in elementary and middle school? Vocabulary lessons. There were very few of them given, but learning new words and then practicing using those words in carefully crafted sentences was one of the most interesting and rewarding exercises. Tonight, we’re going to have a scaled-down vocab lesson consisting of just (1) word that I’m certain all of us have encountered and used before: escape. For starters, here’s a good definition of the word “escape”:

Breaking free from confinement or control.

It’s actually a really good definition, and I’ve been enjoying this whole “poll thing” we’ve been testing out, so let’s do that again.

When you hear or read the word “escape,” it sounds and looks pretty intense. Doesn’t it? And the word carries certain connotations. My first thought – in response to the word “escape” – is this: someone’s been stolen, and they’re locked inside of the trunk of a car at this very moment with some psychopath in the driver’s seat, and they’re slipping and sliding around roughly in the back as that rotten, deranged idiot pilots them through some dirty, slummy, run-down part of the city. And that person needs to figure out how they’re going to escape. Quickly.

 

That’s VERY intense, isn’t it? But you can picture the situation very clearly in your mind, I’m sure, and you can also quickly and easily infer the urgency behind and the severity tied up in the word “escape.” But escaping confinement and control isn’t always so dangerous, and it isn’t always a life or death matter. More often than not, it’s simply escaping a stressful situation, difficult, unwanted circumstances, or an unpleasant state of mind or being. In my case, it’s often the latter. I’ve found – consistently, over the years – that my mind is the worst kind of prison. Maybe you feel similarly. I told a friend once that I felt like a prisoner, and he responded affirmatively: “Well then you are. You are what you choose to be. You are in prison, Jace, and you are also the prison, the guard, the door, the lock, and the key.” I’ve shared the quote with you all before, but it bears repeating. I try to remember that freedom begins in the mind, and that happiness isn’t external.. it’s internal.. and that the key to happiness is honestly just you deciding whether or not you want to be happy, and me deciding whether or not I’m going to be happy. It’s a conscious choice; a deliberate decision. It’s a matter of choosing and allowing happiness for yourself, and I’d like to pose a serious question to myself and to you: Is happiness your default? Shouldn’t it be? Or does it need a reason to exist; some kind of stimulating sensory experience, exciting life event, big career development, “specially” designated occasion, or the introduction of some new, interesting person on the scene? You tell me.

 

So now that we’ve established

  • what “escape” means,
  • what “escaping” is,
  • how people like to escape, and
  • why people choose to escape,

let’s move onto coffee. What the hell does coffee have to do with ANY of this?

 

Well, at its most basic level, coffee is born out of the coffee bean. Coffee beans are ground up, brewed with water, shimmied through a filter, and then taken with creamer, sugar, or simply enjoyed plain (“black”). It’s a stimulant, of course.. coffee. Most of us love it. Growing up, I never liked coffee, and I never, ever had it on a “routine basis.” I tried it for the first time when I was 12 – totally black; no creamer, no sugar.. neither a bell nor a whistle was to be found within the whole, entire mug – and I HATED it. With a passion. I hated it enough to banish it from my life for a solid four years. THEN, I turned 16 and, on my birthday, my mom was out of town. For religious purposes, I wasn’t usually allowed, under her jurisdiction, to take in stimulants, but with my fun, easy-going grandma in town, I ventured to ask if I could please buy a cappuccino from the tiny Starbucks inside of the Super Target. “Sure, go for it,” Grammy answered simply, smiling and looking distracted as she steered the cart towards another part of the store. We parted ways, and I bought some random-ass cappuccino at the front counter (I felt awkward approaching the barista, not know WHAT I was doing, and didn’t want to look stupid by “taking too long” to place my order, so I literally just ordered the very first thing I saw listed on the board). I took a single sip of the drink and, four years later, I hated it, too, so I pawned the rest of the cappuccino off on Grammy, who readily drank it and even seemed to enjoy the horrid beverage.

But when I began working full-time and going to school part-time at the age of 19, I decided to give coffee yet ANOTHER go. Guess what? I STILL wasn’t buying into this coffee crap. “WHY ARE PEOPLE SO OBSESSED WITH THIS SHIT?” I wondered to myself, feeling genuinely puzzled. “It is so GROSS.” And then last year, just before I turned 24, I bought a coffee maker for the house — not for me; for my ex-husband, Chris. His work schedule had him waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning every day, and he liked to drink coffee before heading in. The first few times he brewed coffee, it seemed like way too exciting of an event for me to not be a part of it, so I would tentatively fill a cup half-way full with coffee and then dump ounce after ounce of creamer into it, stirring it all together until it took on the shade of a washed out, camel-brown. I found – to my utter delight – that this homemade coffee tasted palatable. Simply, barely palatable. And so it began: my coffee obsession.

 

In the beginning, with the coffee maker conveniently present in the house at all times, I started brewing and drinking coffee two-three times a week (just “for fun”). And then, as it occurred to me that I was transgender/gay/going to have to divorce my best friend in the whole entire world, life at home became increasingly stressful. Spending time at home depressed me, and even walking around the neighborhood didn’t place me “far enough away from it all” to feel like I wasn’t a part of what was happening, so I began scouting for places to crash at during the weekends and on weeknights. Aside from skating at the park downtown, there seemed to be one other good, untapped option: visiting local coffee shops.

And I started touring them all.
For fun, I’m listing them below.

 

Revelator Coffee Co (first visit had me thinking the staff was snooty; second visit, they were slightly friendlier, but I’d still describe the atmosphere as being sterile)
Seeds Coffee Co (unremarkable)
Church Street Coffee (owner offered me a free pastry at closing; thoughtful!)
O’Henry’s Coffee (fun flavors; also located next to a burrito joint, so that’s a plus)
Crestwood Coffee Co (relaxed atmosphere, cool artwork on the walls; located in the same shopping plaza as Seasick Records)
Urban Pops (laid back vibe, delicious cannolis; super sweet store owner)
Octane (located next to a burrito joint.. HUGE plus)
Urban Standard (pricey tofu scramble, amazing made-from-scratch biscuits, excessively cheesy grits; CUTE brunette patron whose name I’ll never ever know)
Redcat (my #2 fav coffee shop in the WORLD; GREAT peppermint mocha latte w/housemade whipped cream, fantastic grits, comfy couches and steady, friendly staff)
Saturn (my #1 fav coffee shop in the UNIVERSE; outer-spaced themed w/attached music venue.. unbeatable)

 

Some people, like my deceased Uncle Junior, turn to drinking alcohol when they’re down. I take off running into the sweet, warm arms of a coffee pot.

 

So.. what’s so great about local coffee shops? Why do I spend so many dollars and so much of my free time frequenting them? There are a couple of reasons. A couple times two, actually. Four, to be exact.

 

  1. The coffee they serve. It’s delicious.
  2. The free wifi they offer (which I use while writing these blog posts).
  3. The sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet but always populated and lively atmosphere that they feature.
  4. The escape they afford. 

 

I still remember one of the first times I leisurely walked into a coffee shop. I viewed the whole thing, as I do many things, as an experiment. I approached the front counter where a guy was drying a mug with a towel. It was very picturesque; I felt like I was in an 80’s movie. “Hey!” he greeted me. “What can I get you?”

“Hmmmmmmm,” I murmured out loud, placing my finger up against my lips and squinting my eyes in the direction of the menu that was hanging on the wall. “Do you have any fun coffee?” I asked, very seriously.

“Fun coffee?” he repeated, setting the cup off to the side and resting his elbows on the counter. He raised his eyebrows inquisitively and inclined his body towards me.

“Yeah — you know, fun coffee,” I reiterated. “Where it tastes more like a dessert than coffee?”

“Yeahhhhh,” he answered slowly, understanding dawning upon him. “We do have fun coffee!”

“Awesome!” I responded, feeling relieved and clapping my hands together in excitement. No stupid cappuccinos this time! “What are my options?”

“Well,” he began, looking back at the menu himself and taking a quick inventory, “we haveeeeeee.. a vanilla chai latte..”

“Ewww, that’s boring,” I mumbled out loud.

“I’m sorry?” he queried, turning his head back to face me — smiling and looking a little surprised.

“Oh, nothing,” I responded quickly, “what are some other options?”

We talked it over and I decided to try a mocha with extra half and half. I took a seat on the leather couch after placing my order and, when he brought the doctored up mocha out to me, I was absolutely delighted. I remember returning the next week and him asking me: “So, how are you liking these mochas with the extra half and half?” #love #supportlocalcoffeeshops

 

So the coffee is great. I’ve found my flavor, and I’m officially a fan. Coffee has actually become somewhat of an addiction for me, and I fully realize that. Scarcely a day goes by without me having coffee in some form or fashion (I have my “types” of coffee classified into two groups: “coffee shop coffee” and “gas station coffee”). Whatever type of coffee it is, it just makes the day more interesting.

 

But beyond enjoying the flavor of the coffee and the barely-noticeable adrenaline boost that it gives, I enjoy leaving the house, going somewhere that is full of people, and then being surrounded by voices, bodies, machines, pastries, and that general “coffee shop aroma.” For me, it — drinking coffee and visiting coffee shops — is an escape. The whole process, the whole event, the whole thing. And I just realized that today.

 

I was wrapping up a project and preparing to leave work this afternoon when a friend messaged me something that was unexpectedly impactful (we had been talking lightly — about music, recording, and records; his plans for the evening and mine).

“I’m feeling kind of blue,” I texted at one point, being honest, “so I’m heading to Saturn after work for coffee and writing.”

He responded within seconds, with no hesitation, and this is exactly what he said:

“Lemme give you a piece of advice that you didn’t ask for. You could go to Europe. You could go to Mars. That baggage is coming with you. Getting out won’t fix shit. Cleaning the house won’t fix it. You gotta face it (insert heart emoticon). But you do you, Jace. You’ll figure out what works for you.”

I looked down at my phone, reading each line carefully and then re-reading them all, and then I closed my eyes. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach; it was nauseating. He’d just hit a nerve. I could feel it. I started crying, and then I had to catch my breath and coach myself into making it through the last half hour of work before indulging myself with a minor emotional breakdown.

 

But he really nailed it.

 

What some people use television, food, drinking, drugs, and Jesus for, I use coffee and coffee shops for: they’re an escape. A coping mechanism. They make me feel like I’m “fixing” something.. like I’m making my problems go away. But all that’s really happening is I’m distracting myself from them and moving myself away from them. They’re not going anywhere, and I’m reminded of that each time I return home and they’re still there.. on me, in me, all over me again. The relief I experience from keeping “busy” and “getting out” is temporary, and it feels nice, but it’s fleeting. Now — the writing really DOES help; it is my own “free” therapy regiment. But I’ve got to get out of this mindset that I can only find mental clarity and emotional relief when I’m sipping coffee among strangers — when I’m far away from home. It’s hard to pinpoint when that mentality began, exactly, but I feel like it was last year when my world fucking flipped on its axis.

 

“He’s right,” I admitted, intuitively, “but I’m still freaking going to Saturn after work.”

 

And here I am.

The barista greeted me by name when I awkwardly approached the front counter three hours ago, reaching into my backpack for my wallet.

“Hey, Jace!” she called out, smiling — a petite blonde with short, wispy hair; wearing a tight-fitting green t and cool arm tattoos.

“Hey!” I smiled back at her and then shifted my eyes downward, onto the counter. “And you’reeeeee.. Payton?” I tilted my head slightly and looked up at her for confirmation.

“Yep,” she caught my eyes and smiled again. I felt awkward, so I very quickly got down to business.

“I’MMMMM going to get the same thing I got last time, because it was perfect; a mocha with extra half and half.”

“Okay, cool,” she nodded in agreement, “and I didn’t actually MAKE your drink last time, so did we steam the whole thing or did you want the extra half and half mixed in on top?”

“That.. sounds great,” I replied simply. “Honestly, I don’t understand ‘how’ this works or happens, but I’m sure that mixing the half and half in on top will be awesome.”

She laughed. “Okay, Jace. It’ll be ready in just a minute.”

“Take your time!” I called out, moseying over to the couch (my couch). I followed the steps my OCD laid out plainly before me; I obeyed all of the rules:

  1. Plug laptop into the wall.
  2. Return wallet to second compartment of backpack.
  3. Remove headphones from backpack, insert them into mobile phone, load Spotify.
  4. Sit down on couch, cross-legged.
  5. Log into WordPress and get to work.

 

I finished the mocha within 30 minutes. Various people have approached me and talked with me.. about music, Taco Bell, open mics, softball and Atlanta, Georgia. I enjoyed each conversation while trying to end them as quickly as possible. I’ve drafted yet another wordy, pointless post, and at 9:10 PM, do I feel any better? Kind of. Sort of. Writing weakens my depression; the coffee tastes good.

But I’m kicking myself right now, because my weaknesses are totally evident, and my quickly developing patterns are perfectly clear. When I feel like control is slipping away from me — when I feel stressed and depressed and lonely — I do three things:

 

  1. I push people away.
  2. I start hating and refusing food again.
  3. I blow money on coffee and run away from home.. in reverse order.

 

I feel fat, I feel claustrophobic, I feel worthless, and I feel conflicted, and I just want to lose myself in a crowd. Any crowd. People are crowding into the music venue “part” of Saturn right now, lining up to listen and scream along while Elle King performs her hit song, Exes and Ohs.. and me? I just want to feel okay. But I know that no one can make me feel that way, and neither can any thing. Relationships are draining. Things are distracting. It’s up to me to be okay. No one can tag and check the baggage in for me, and it’s impossible for them to carry it around on my behalf. My baggage is a part of me; it is inseparable from me. No one can get down to the root of my sadness, or identify the cause of these upswings and downward spirals the way that I can. It’s my mission to dig and search until I find out what’s going on.. until I discover what’s rotting underneath it all.. and it’s a daunting task: having to depend on, rely on, and trust just yourself. It sounds like an easy enough thing to do, but how can you really trust yourself when you’re changing all the time? When you can’t make a decision and stick with it, or a choose a path and stay on it? It’s easier to trust other people. It’s easier to let them carry you than to support your own weight. It’s easier to believe them when they say that you’re beautiful and sweet and smart and worthwhile than it is to tell those things to yourself and believe that they’re true.

And it’s hard to live like this; oscillating day by day and hour by hour.. waiting around and wondering when the pendulum is finally going to decide that it’s less humiliating to break than to waver.

 

Slowly sipping away,
Aun Aqui

 

4 thoughts on “It isn’t the coffee; it’s me

  1. Try a caramel macchiato — I like them iced. Sweet, still a touch of coffee, and a good pick me up on a warm day.

  2. You’re overlooking one very important aspect of the coffee experience. It’s halfway between gas-station and coffee-shop, and that’s ‘diner coffee’. Sometimes you just need the never-ending coffee experience of a Waffle House. You can be around people, but they mostly don’t want to talk to you. Oh, and you need to find a place that does a Vietnamese iced coffee. There’s your dessert.

    Good luck with your troubles. It’s true that they’ll go with you, but it’s also true that there are times when pushing them aside is the only thing that’s of any use. Sitting and focusing on only your problems can be just as bad for getting through your life as completely ignoring them.

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