Monday, October 13, 2008


**disclaimer: Usually I write about my own life in a bizarre twist of the present tense, because that's how it makes sense to me. In the following text I tried to stick to the more conventional method of story-telling -- fixing it squarely in the past tense.**

I felt a little bit of a headache spreading slowly across my shoulders, a persistent strain that was becoming common to my afternoons. It didn’t have all the tense pressure of a caffeine headache, but I thought a cup of tea might help. Give the caffeine time to settle into my deepest muscle fibers before going to the afternoon preschool class.

Caffeine is a fierce lover. Starting the morning with a cup of coffee is, as I often explained to my non-addict friends, the simplest way to ensure a good day. With caffeine I was alert, pleasant-tempered, ready to face any challenge. All coffee-drinkers know the other side of that coin, however, and collectively we shudder with fear at a day without the drug.

It was during my last year of college that I started drinking daily coffee. Initially I could overcome morning grogginess without it, especially since I usually didn’t have my first cup till almost noon. That meant I could be distracted from procuring coffee. At that time I was still a novice. I didn’t yet think of myself as a coffee-drinker, had not yet accepted the title for myself, and as yet did not always act as a responsible coffee-drinker will act: eyes on the goal.

Within a few hours of the coffee deadline, however, my body would remind me of its need. At first I could ignore a mild headache scratching at my cranium. I could push through to focus on my work. Soon enough though it would be full-on tenseness gripping my neck and shoulders, a foul temperament, and a pounding jackhammer on both temples at once. It was like a bald eagle was attached to my trapezoidals, talons dug into my nerves, screeching inside of me and out to whomever stood in my way. I had a coffee pot in my office, which was a blessing because by the time the caffeine withdrawal symptoms hit that badly, I didn’t have the gumption to drag myself to the cafĂ© in the next building.

I had a twelve-thirty Spanish class during my last semester, and if I didn’t get my coffee before that class, I had an hour-long introduction to the perils of hell instead of merely a language lesson. Walking back to my office after that class felt like walking inside a snare drum, my vision skewed and even the ground underneath me warped. I only hoped that I wouldn’t pass anyone I knew who wanted to talk. Even smiling at a friend as we hurried our different directions could cause new waves of pain to crash along the sandy grit of my face.

Within minutes of finally getting the bitter brown elixir into my system, I could feel the pain evaporate, my mood lighten, and the good ole’ gung-ho return. The fierce eagle shrank away to nothing, the snare drum went off to bother someone else. I was happy! I was a new woman! I could conquer the world!

Sometimes I think I subconsciously ignored the oncoming symptoms just so I could experience their alleviation. It worked like magic.

At some point along the way things shifted to be a little scary. I don’t know when it happened, but I slowly came to realize it after several dangerous encounters.

It came to be that without coffee, even before warning bells of pain dancing across the back of my eyes told me that caffeine levels were dropping, I would lose my ability to focus. At first it was laughable, like finding myself staring at a book title trying to figure out what it said. It became quite annoying, a bruise to my pride, when it affected my ability to hold intelligent conversation. I could sit there, hanging on every word, struggling to piece the sounds together into intelligible sentence structures. Complex topics, like religion or anything academic, were lost on me without coffee as stimulus. I became to question, was my intellect dependent on a drink? Surely there was a time when I didn’t need to be caffeinated to have an opinion. But there I would stand, mouth agape, struggling to form coherent phrases about topics I knew, knew, I had opinions on.

It became a problem when it affected my driving. I nearly killed myself, and worse, several friends, because the absence of a certain chemical prevented my brain from making proper decisions and snap judgments. In my caffeine-free fog, I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t concentrating on the road.

Of course, this all happened at the same time that I was suffering from Mono, and I could also feel the effects of the disease on making my thinking processes sluggish, so maybe that can be the scapegoat and the name of coffee can be cleared. Nevertheless, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision while driving a car full of friends encouraged me to finally take the last step and insist, come high tide or scurvy, on my first cup of the morning. Every morning.

So of course I’d already had my cup— espresso, to be precise, as there in my Italian flat I only had an espresso pot—but that was in the morning. It had become afternoon, the day sucked away in an English lesson and housework avoided by reading Yann Martel. There were three more English lessons to come later in the day, so a caffeine jumpstart seemed like a good idea.

Trying to stay on the conservative side, I chose to make myself a cup of tea. The last thing I needed was to need (understand me, need) a second cup every day. I liked being able to rely on a second, afternoon cup as a boost when necessary and had no desire to up the ante on my addiction. Tea could substitute as a small recharge: a burst of sugar to get me over the hump and an injection of caffeine (only half as much as a cup of coffee, I righteously reminded myself) to get me through the lessons for the rest of the day.

I put some water in my frying pan and put it over the largest burner. I had no kettle, and found that the frying pan heated water quicker than a conventional pot. It felt a little funny, though, to cook water in a frying pan for a cup of tea. The electric fuse never worked, so I lit the stove by match and left the water on high heat. Meanwhile I guiltily stole back to Life of Pi that had already replaced the mopping and scrubbing I’d promised myself I would do. One short chapter later the water was forming tiny bubbles and was ready for my tea. I poured it carefully from the wide, flat pan into my mug and let the tea bag steep. I sliced up an apple that showed signs of getting too old (I never ate enough fruit), throwing the suspicious parts into the trash under the sink. While down there I turned off the gas nozzle, since it leaked a little bit. Once, before I knew better because I’d just moved to the apartment, I left the nozzle open all day while out and returned to the place smelling quite evil. I opened all the doors and windows and spent a good hour sitting on the couch in fear of explosion.

I heard a funny click from the stove. It clicked again. It sounded like the automatic fuse, or whatever you call that thing that clicks and lights the gas on the stove. I held down the button for the fuse (that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t) and, sure enough, it clicked again. When I released it, it kept clicking at roughly three-second intervals. Just long enough that every time I thought maybe it had stopped. I turned on the gauge for the burner, but the gas was off, so nothing happened when it clicked again. I turned off the burner.

I tried to ignore the sound. Problems tend to dissipate on their own, I told myself. I put milk and sugar in my tea, not my usual practice, but this was a midafternoon snack, so why not? I spilled a little of the beige drink, being too greedy about filling the mug up to the very top. Then, as I stirred it, I spilled a little bit more.

I kept being distracted by the clicking. I tried pushing the black fuse button repeatedly, forcefully, thinking maybe it was stuck. I banged on the element and used a knife to pull the top pieces off, but the clicking continued. I thought wistfully of my book and how this horrible disruption would never let me read it and drink my tea in peace. Confounded noise! I pulled up on the black button in a last-ditch attempt to do something. To my surprise it pulled up about three inches with my momentum, exposing the mechanics underneath and—wait three seconds, just to be sure—yes! interrupted the mechanism and stopped the fuse.

I finished slicing up my apple and prepared to take my snack to the couch where Pi and his tiger awaited me. On second thought, I decided to wipe up the spilt tea before it solidified into a sugary mess. The kitchen was, afterall, the only part of the flat I had managed to actually clean that day. I grabbed a paper towel and wiped up the area around the stove where the tea had spilled. POW!

A sharp intake of breath, a snap. Did that?—yes, it just happened. A black spray of electrical char marred the white stove top. I heard the whirr of the refrigerator settling behind me. Did I blow a fuse? A real one? The light was still on, so no, everything was still working. There was no fire. I was not hurt, it seemed. I took mental stock. Was I shocked? Electrocuted? I felt the coil of my muscles fully engaged, but their tenseness could be from internal electricity rather than external. My spinal cord was apparently in working order. I looked at the paper towel in my hand and marveled how much of it was burnt in that tiniest fraction of an instant when water met current and things went Pow. I forced my elbows and shoulders to unwind, realized that only my eyes had been moving to take in the situation, and moved my head from side to side.

Can’t clean up now, I thought, leaving the remaining water to evaporate the old-fashioned way. I chuckled internally (or maybe aloud, who can tell when you live by yourself?). And I thought I needed caffeine to jumpstart my afternoon.

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