THE SECRET TO YOUR BEST SELF
Three minutes into Marcos’s workday, the Keurig craps out. It sputters; it cries: it refuses to perform. Marcos has been known to kill six K-Cups in any given afternoon, so this derails his whole day. He doesn’t even like the mud that comes out of K-Cups—he’s really a stovetop Bustelo man—but he is in no place to turn his nose up at free coffee. He can’t slip out between meetings to buy a cup of tar from Starbucks, a break-in-case-of-emergency situation that would follow him like shame, the burnt-coffee stench clinging to the fabric of his sweater. Now he must return home, severely decaffeinated, with a mild pain pooling in his temples. And instead of winding down for the evening, swapping out a crisp collar for a threadbare T-shirt that once belonged to his ex, Ramón, Marcos is wired up for his first cup of the day.
He begins his pursuit by pacing around his kitchen, sticking his head into every cabinet. He finds a can of whole coffee beans, but they are perfectly useless. No spice grinder! He opens the fridge and leans way in, almost folding over himself when he pokes his head between the economy-sized jar of pickles and a water pitcher, its insides peppered from an expired filter. No coffee. Oh, but why shouldn’t there be a problem? Of course, of course—his roommate, Xiomara, hides the ground coffee in her bedroom. That’s where she keeps all the goods: the coffee, the boxes of white chocolates her mother sends around Christmas, packs of face masks she bought on a trip to South Korea, a silk robe she wears after showering. She started locking her bedroom door at some point after Ramón left.
Marcos frees himself from the fridge as a stronger pain thumps inside his head. He wishes now to stick a bendy straw in an entire carafe of fresh coffee. How he longs to suck. He wants the black coffee to coat his throat, burn it, to brew in the barrel of his stomach; he wants to rile up that loyal acid reflux, get it to skyrocket and explode into the base of his chest. The possibility of this acidic diet successfully eroding the remaining lump of his heart is slim—but he chooses to believe.
In the kitchen there are six cabinets. One is full of mugs. Mugs from New York and North Carolina, from his alma mater, gift shops along highways in the middle of who can even remember, and the ones Ramón had bought as birthday presents for Marcos in his twenties, each one hand-painted with phrases that make little sense. Things like: “Here Is How I Rise,” or “You Would Have to Be the Fool,” or “Tango in the Dark, Waltz in the Light,” or “Can, Will, When.” Are they aphorisms? Obscure mantras? Marcos has spent every morning after the breakup mulling over them at the sink, rolling the mugs between two soapy hands, waiting for the hot water to reveal a clearer meaning.
He grabs one now that reads “The Secret to Your Best Self.” It seems perfectly incomplete.
He slams the mug down on the countertop, enjoys the feeling of ceramic shattering in his hand. Motivated, he reaches for a cabinet door and yanks it off the hinge, tossing it across the kitchen like a Frisbee. And so it goes: the five remaining cabinet doors meet the ground, faux-wood scuffing tile, the edges peeling back to a surface of decay. Then the decorative pieces on the counters, the walls: a ceramic spoon-clock, fancy bottles of vinegar and jars packed with dried herbs, a duck-shaped cookie jar, a never-used mesh strainer. Everything soon lies scattered about the kitchen either in shards or dented beyond repair. The drawers follow: out tumble cutlery and rolls of aluminum foil, Ziploc bags, soy and hot sauce packets. Marcos’ headache intensifies, and when he glances down he realizes he is holding a steak knife. He massages the grooves of its wooden handle as if it possesses the ability to grant wishes. There are only two options: puncture the source of highest pressure in his head, or slash through the walls.
But before he can do either he hears the click of a lock and turns to see that Xiomara is home from work. Xiomara clasps her hands together, closes her eyes for a second and sighs before approaching Marcos. They’ve been here before. For weeks, well, O.K., maybe months after the breakup, Marcos would sneak into her room after work and steal her silk robe. He enjoyed the cold fabric on his skin, the touch of something. Xiomara would discover him passed out on the sofa hours later, white chocolate chips all over his chest, melted into the robe and on the cushions—and Marcos, snoring, lulled into a sugared slumber.
In silence Xiomara removes the knife from his grip then grabs the can of whole coffee beans off the counter. She takes from it a handful, letting the beans roll from her palm onto a cutting board, and Marcos watches them like marbles circling each other, unsure if they are following or trying to outrun one another.
Xiomara slices the beans, going in for a rougher chop until they resemble little mounds of dirt, like the piles left behind when repotting a plant. She grabs as much as will fit in the crook of her fingertips and inches them close to Marcos’s mouth. He does not hesitate, he opens wide, allowing her to sprinkle the coffee dust onto his tongue. The headache does not wane, nor does he feel revived. The coffee tastes bitter; without any liquid the residue leaves his tongue feeling raw. But over time, as he sweeps the kitchen, listening to Xiomara talk about her day, about everything other than the mess around them and all that he’s destroyed, he stops tasting the coffee. And the craving dissipates. And he stops missing what he cannot have.
Christopher Gonzalez grew up in Cleveland and now lives and writes in New York. His short stories appear or are forthcoming in Third Point Press, jmww, Split Lip Magazine, Pithead Chapel, The Acentos Review, and elsewhere. He currently works in book publishing and serves as a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and a contributing editor at Split Lip. You can visit him at www.chris-gonzalez.com or on Twitter: @livesinpages.