What struck him most was the vividness of detail: flakes of chocolate perspired beads of condensation onto foam while raw sugar granules fell as boulders of bronze crystal into a frothy surf. The sugar built in the center of his cup, piling upon itself into a small island of crystalline sand, and — fascinated by the scintillating grains — Sean began moving the packet of spilling sugar, sprinkling the tiny stones across the surface of his latte to watch it absorb into a milky crust of foam.
Sean’s former boss, a middle-aged woman by the name of Dr. Kerry Decker, sat before him explaining things. She was a tenured professor at the university, with a partner on the city council and an only child just finishing secondary school. She sat aplomb at the edge of her creased booth while Sean ignored her with his idle sprinkling. “It was Mary McKnight applying for the residency that did it,” she was saying. “But there’s a program in Paisley, I think. And maybe others in the city, though application periods...” Her words filled the space between them, reaching Sean through the clutter of his thoughts, ricocheting off the implications of her recent revelation.
Kerry continued to speak with a tone that had at some point transitioned from that of a former employer to that of a companion, with the tenderness of a consolatory guardian. She’d become Sean’s former employer when, two-minutes before — as Sean reached over her to grab their tray of coffees at the Tinderbox counter — she’d blurted out that he’d been cut. “You didn’t get it,” were the words she’d chosen — perhaps carefully, perhaps on impulse — spilling forth in such a blunder of syllables that Sean had to respond with an apology.
“The post. The residency,” she said again. “You didn’t get it.”
Sean had frozen in place, obstructing a crowd of caffeine-deprived patrons from the bar with his tray of coffees hovering inches above the countertop. Kerry had watched him with her faded gaze, eyes turned grey by long hours of staring into computer screens. Even now he could feel her inspecting him, measuring the weight of his response against the demand of her expectations. She followed his eyes as her lips moved. “If not for Mary McNight,” she was saying.
Sean rolled the name across his tongue. Mary McNight. He cursed how fluid it felt, how naturally it fell from Kerry’s lips. He pictured the name printed on her novel, the novel that won Saltire’s “First Book of the Year” award. Call of the Grouse, it was called. Or was it, Flight of the Grouse? Not that it mattered — Sean felt that both titles blew — for, regardless of her writing quality, he failed to see how Mary McNight’s prestige would replace the projects that he’d imbedded himself in over the years of his employment: the writing workshops, the magazine, the courses designed and facilitated. It was, of course, a temporary position — he’d been made aware of that from the start — but there had been hints at continuity, unspoken agreements, gestures that he realized now were as fruitless and fictional as his future within academia.
“You’ll have our commendations wherever you go,” Kerry said. “It really was just a matter of funding…”
Sean blinked, holding his eyes shut and allowing the blackness to block out her face, her words. He turned back to his coffee. There was something hypnotic in the swirl of foam and deposits of sugar. He took his spoon and pushed the island of grains to the bottom of his latte. An espresso bronze spilled around his spoon, wetting the foam and releasing a puff of steam. The color reminded him of the River Clyde after a heavy rain: murky and muddled. He lifted his mug and pulled a sip of the drink through his lips and teeth. He held it on his tongue, swallowed, and then felt the caffeine spark in his frontal lobe. It was a gratifying sensation, accentuated by the intense flavor of the drink, and immediately Sean found himself remembering an old feeling of restlessness. It was the urge to stand. To get up and move. He imagined himself moving — down rivers, roads, airport terminals — to distant places (it didn’t matter where): New Delhi, Costa Rica, Hong Kong.
It was a feeling of weightlessness, and it replaced the anticipation that had suffocated the past three months of his life. The state of limbo that had hid his future behind a froth of applications and deadlines and waiting, all to be brushed aside by Kerry’s abrupt revelation before what was meant to be a routine quarterly review. Now, instead of commending the direction of Sean’s many projects, Kerry was rambling about alternatives to teaching within academia.
Sean took another slurp of foam. From his first sip, the latte had struck him as unusually flavorful. It was as though the coffee were richer, the ratio of milk to espresso — fluid to foam — was calculated to perfection, measured diligently to a level of optimal piquancy so that Sean could feel its flavor around him, outside of him, shielding him from the implications of his unemployment with its startling sharpness. He began obsessing over it. His lips twitched to a quizzical smile wet with nectar, his shoulders loosening with each sip until even Kerry had noticed the shift in his demeanor. She halted mid-sentence, rigid in the silence before Sean opened his mouth and spoke.
“Is it just me?” he began, and then stopped. “It’s like every grain of sugar is exploding inside of my mouth!”
Kerry’s jaw fell with the reaffirmation for her decision to back Mary McKnight for their residency, but Sean hardly noticed. He was absorbed in the aroma of his latte, raptured by the intensity of its flavor, the crunching of sugar between teeth and the surge of dopamine against neural receptors. It was, quite simply, the best coffee he’d had in months.
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