The old man shuffled into the same diner as he did every morning, brown, linen golfer’s cap pulled low over his white brows, sagging cheeks and wrinkled demeanor just barely peeking out of the self-imposed shadows. He didn’t eat much, and came into the diner for one thing, every morning. Coffee.
He had grown accustomed to the taste of black coffee in the morning. It was not that he necessarily enjoyed the taste—the intoxicating, hot, bitter blackness whose darkness somehow made his mornings a little brighter. Of course, as most people do, he preferred cream and sugar to mediate his morning pick-me-up. But why have cream and sugar, he thought, if one day you ran out, or were in a foreign place where your cream and sugar were not available? It was illogical to become accustomed to enjoying what could be temporary, he thought. He shook his head at those who always took cream and sugar, as they were clearly unprepared for the inevitability of black coffee at least once in their lives.
So, morning after morning, cup after cup, he savored the steaming bitterness. For the old man, it made more sense to become accustomed to going without, than to find slightly more routine enjoyment in his coffee, only to one day be interrupted with the explicit availability of black coffee, no cream and no sugar.
Cream and sugar. It seems like such a trivial thing doesn’t it? What an idea, denying oneself simple pleasures whenever possible, on the basis that they might not always be available. But see, that was just the thing. To the old man, allowing for certain trivial pleasures to take root in his being, however miniscule, allowed for the possibility of a “foot in the door” effect. If he started to mitigate his coffee, then he may begin to want to mitigate his loneliness. And surely, people are far less reliable than the availability of cream and sugar. Right?
People, unlike an absence of cream and sugar, had the power to break other people. People were unpredictable. The powers that a person had to either sweeten or darken another’s life, were far more reaching than the powers that a little cream and sugar—or lack thereof—had on the enjoyability of a cup of coffee.
The old man wasn’t sure how long he had been coming into the diner each morning for his caffeinated breakfast. Years. Decades, perhaps. Did it really matter? Each day was the same, for the old man did not believe breaks in routine, because just like trivial luxuries, a break in routine entertained the possibility of the unpredictable. The unpredictable entertained the possibility of letdown, whose risk was not worth losing the comfortable middle ground of neither enjoyment nor disappointment.
The old man refused to leave this middle ground. He would settle, safe with a reliable companion—a single cup of black coffee, no cream and no sugar.
Sometimes however, we find ourselves in the midst of peripheral slips in routine, those small inconsistencies that we notice but cannot control.
And sometimes, these barely noticeable alterations move us.
As he settled into his creaky, faux-leather cushioned booth, a woman of similar age, with a naked ring finger and a cup of black coffee in front of her, sidled in to the normally vacant booth next to his. She was alone, too.
The waitress approached the man’s slightly worn and noticeably chipped linoleum tabletop, where his wrinkled and leathery hands were loosely folded.
“Anything to drink, sir?” she chimed.
He glanced over to the booth next to his, his heart thumping just a little more strongly against his fragile ribcage than it had in recent years.
“—Cream and sugar.”