Unsweetened Tea

When I take a sip of unsweetened tea, or black coffee or unsweetened almond milk (I know, who the heck drinks almond milk? I do.), I get this terribly troubling feeling of loss and longing. I’m not a sugar addict, I swear, but let me get back to what I’m trying to say. When I take a sip of coffee or tea or almond milk that’s unsweetened, my tongue hones in on that one missing element, that one missing flavor that turns my tongue over and sharpens my taste. I miss that taste of sugar on my tongue, because I’ve gotten really used to it.

I met her at Seventh Coffee shop, when I was a barista there. She was on a first date – not with me, of course. I watched them both, sitting in that chair near the window. She looked bored, or distracted, or anxious – anything but interested, but never lacking respect. I nodded and smiled to her.

Customers always asked me what kind of coffee they should try, as if I knew exactly what they wanted. There were two things wrong with these questions, the first being that I don’t drink coffee – I’m a tea guy. The second, you can’t rely on someone else to tell you what is good or what isn’t – you have to try it for yourself.

That was how we met for the first time, and also probably how we stayed interested in each other. I was the only barista who enjoyed tea more than coffee, and she was the only customer I ever met who shared that sentiment.

Every morning I would get out of the house early and drop by Haven’s park. I’d sit on that bench, the one that overlooks Eames St. and Hardison-Ripley Ave. The traffic raced by like waves on a beach. I’d enjoy my tea, sweetened to perfection, every morning. Every evening, after work, I’d get home, eat dinner, climb into bed, and have a final cup of tea, sweetened to perfection.

She kept coming back to Seventh Coffee, though never with him. She ordered tea every time, my favorite kind of tea, but with a unique request for brewing. One minute with the teabag, one minute without, 3 minutes with, a pinch of salt, and a comfortable portion of sugar. I tried it, and she was right about something.

Soon enough, she was meeting me at Haven’s park in the morning, before my shift started, before her classes started. We both drank the same tea; the flavor tattooed itself on my taste buds, and wrote itself into my memory of that place. Before long, she met me every morning, and not long after that, she was joining me when I had my final cup of tea each night.

It was a while before I realized that something was terribly wrong.

She’d always been thin. But this was different. She’d always been frail, but I should have seen. One morning, she didn’t show up.

I biked to her apartment, and heard and saw nothing. I biked to her parent’s home, and that’s when I found out.

Having someone’s memories touch the lips of your thoughts every morning before you start, and every night before you sleep, accustoms you to something. It writes it into your mind, so that if you don’t feel it, you know there’s something wrong. It writes patterns in your brain in the same way a wagon cart drives deep ruts into drying mud.

When I turned 28, the doctors diagnosed me with diabetes. Sugar was replaced with sweeteners and substitutes. But sugar is one of the easy patterns to replace.

When I taste unsweetened tea, I know exactly what it would’ve tasted like with sugar.

When I breathe and see and hear and smile, I know exactly what it would’ve been like to do all of those things with her.