Kathryn Sukalich is a recent graduate of Iowa State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment where she studied fiction and creative nonfiction writing. Her work has been published in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment and Prick of the Spindle.
“How many cups of coffee do you drink per day?” the doctor asked.
“Only one,” I said. Her pen made a mark on a clipboard. “A small one, only a half cup really.”
She looked up at me and smiled. Her teeth were very white and very straight. “Then it shouldn’t be too hard to give up.”
I cringed and thought of the container of creamer in my fridge that would go unused.
The doctor thought I might have a problem with caffeine. It was a common problem among her patients, she said. A common irritant. So while I was at it, she told me to give up tea, soda, and chocolate. I sighed and scuffed my foot against the too-bright pattern on the exam room’s carpet, royal blue, fluorescent green, and bright purple like a bad design on a Greyhound bus’s upholstery.
“Come see me in three months,” the doctor said, ushering me out of the room. “And don’t drink decaf either. It still has some caffeine in it.”
So I avoided caffeine. This meant a number of things. For example, it meant my twenty-five dollar Mr. Coffee got dusty, the bag of Alterra Coffee I’d received as a gift sat unopened, and I spent a lot less time at my local coffee shop (with caffeine out of the picture, the only safe beverages were herbal tea and smoothies; the daily specials—“S’more Mocha!” and “Zombie Espresso Shake!” and “Egg Nog Latte!”—mocked me from their cute framed chalkboard). It meant when I walked down the coffee aisle at the grocery store, the smell made me sad and nostalgic. Once or twice I even texted my boyfriend while standing in front of the bulk bins: “Coffeeeee. Waaa.” He laughed, but soon found my complaints tiring. Avoiding caffeine also meant I had headaches for almost a month, surely a sign my body did not get along without the stuff. Like clockwork, by one in the afternoon I had to swallow two ibuprofen tablets or spend the rest of the day being head-on-desk useless. (Oddly enough, this was one of the reasons I had stayed a coffee drinker once I acquired the daily habit; I was afraid of the headaches I knew lurked at the edges of a caffeine-deprived brain.)
I began drinking coffee during the semester I spent abroad during college. A handful of friends and I studied at La Universidad Complutense, the large public university in Madrid, Spain. People in Spain like coffee, and they like it with sugar. Lots of sugar. For me, this was perfect. I did not grow up in a coffee-drinking household—my parents didn’t drink alcohol either, so that eliminated two easy Christmas gifts—and the taste of coffee always made me wrinkle my nose when its acidity pricked my tongue. But that changed when the coffee came in a double shot glass half-filled with milk with two giant packets of sugar dissolved in it. It’s amazing Spaniards don’t have mouths full of cavities and rampant diabetes. I couldn’t believe people drank this café con leche every day. Pretty soon, though, I was drinking it every day. I marched up to the counter in the cafeteria of the humanities building with one of my friends and leaned against the counter, Euro coins in hand. The baristas usually ignored us until all the Spanish students had been served (as a pale-skinned girl with light brown hair, there was no way I could pass for native, even if I kept my mouth shut). Finally a disgruntled employee shoved beverages in front of us, we dumped giant sugar packets into them, and we returned to our 1970s-colored orange seats at a nearby table. I sipped my beverage. My pulse quickened. My fingers trembled.
Back in the U.S. the following semester, I started buying coffee on campus once in a while. The cheap drip coffee was no café con leche, but with enough cream turned drinkable. I carried cardboard cups to class, folded the cups’ sleeves into crappy renditions of origami hats or birds while professors lectured about philosophy or Latino/a literature or Modernist British poetry. I took deep breaths in a vain attempt to steady my shaky hands. Instead, the handwriting in my notebook grew jerky.
This was followed by a post-college year working as at office assistant at an insurance company where everyone complained about the crappy Folgers coffee in the break room purchased in bulk at Sam’s Club. Everyone complained, but everyone drank it anyway. From those coworkers I learned the importance of flavored creamer—Caramel Swirl, White Chocolate Raspberry, Crème de Menthe, French Vanilla—in masking the taste of burnt beans.
By this point, I had probably joined the coffee club. I was an every day drinker. Once I arrived at graduate school a year later and bought my Mr. Coffee, I was gulping down my morning cup before I ran out the door to catch the bus. One of my roommates said she couldn’t drink coffee often because it made her jittery. Me too, I’d said. I only drink a tiny cup.
When the other grad students heard I had to give up coffee they gasped. They shook their heads. They stared into their coffee mugs—decorated with Santa and his reindeer, with cartoon bison and the words “Wall Drug, South Dakota,” with the slogan “Write like a motherfucker!”—and sighed. They said they couldn’t have done it. They couldn’t have given up their coffee, their caffeine, their makes-me-function-like-a-normal-human-being beverage. Well, I’d said. After the first few weeks it’s not so bad. But when people came into our communal office and asked who wanted a new pot of coffee or when they all got together at the coffee shop to type away on their laptops, I felt a little left out. I’d been forced to leave the coffee club. I sipped my orange juice.
On the plus side, once the headaches and sluggishness of a caffeine-free diet wore off, I felt better. Significantly better. I hadn’t realized how many stomachaches I’d been getting until suddenly I wasn’t getting them anymore. Eventually, I didn’t need coffee to wake me up in the morning (though there were many sleepy mornings along that journey). When I went back to the doctor three months later, she nodded, smiled, and said, “That makes complete sense.” I raised an eyebrow, still a little baffled.
One desperate day while staring out the window at the grayness that is January in the Midwest, I missed having a warm beverage I liked to drink and Googled “naturally decaffeinated coffee.” My eyes widened as I learned from HowStuffWorks.com that naturally decaffeinated coffee grows in Madagascar. I clicked through multiple Google searches attempting to figure out how to obtain mascarocoffea vianneyi. After a couple trips to my local grocery stores and a little more research, I learned Madagascar’s decaf coffee is rarely exported and even when it is, you shouldn’t buy it because Madagascar’s rainforest is being destroyed to make room to grow more coffee. Drink it and you will be killing lemurs and geckos. Having reached a dead end, I leaned back in my desk chair and settled for herbal tea.