Thursday, February 24, 2005

Flowering Coffee

The waitresses, in defiance of grammar, call them "creams." They hold, I suppose, about a teaspoon of half-and-half. White plastic conic sections, like upside-down thimbles, their sides delicately fluted. Their proportions are exactly right. Across the top is pasted a circle, paper on top and foil beneath, and to open them you pull on a tab where the foil-and-paper juts out, and you peel it off the top. If you're gentle enough you can usually get the whole top off intact, but if you're impatient it tears, and leaves an overhang.

Either way, you pick it up -- gently, again, because the sides flex easily even with the fluting -- and turn it slowly over. Say three inches above the coffee. A stream of white -- the thickness of cord, but perfectly smooth -- runs from the container into the coffee. I suppose that it's surface tension that keeps this filament of liquid exactly the same width, from top to bottom. The coffee shudders slightly. Except for a little white dappling right at the point of entry, you could think that the cream was simply disappearing. The coffee remains black.

Then it begins to blossom. Petals of what we call coffee-color (although it's really coffee-with-cream-color) appear below the surface, wavering and turning. Gradually they join each other, until the un-creamed coffee is nothing but a swirling, fading boundary line between the petals. Dissolving, but never quite dissolved. If you don't stir it, it will remain that way -- separate petals, slowly turning, never quite reaching the surface.

Dip in a spoon, and a couple of movements make petals, surface, and the little white dappling disappear. It's just coffee, now. Coffee-colored coffee.

Even when I'm tired, discontented, and lonely, this blossoming, this extraordinary fractal elaboration, delights me.

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