25 March, 2008


[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "Halloween in the Hoosegow,"  "In Memory of Monuments," "On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper," and "Only a Fleeting Thing." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]
It is freeze dried and comes in a resealable yellow bag that proclaims "100% Colombian." Conveniently omitted are specifics, as though, at least where coffee production is concerned, the country is peerless in its inability to do wrong. The dubious provenance becomes all the more worrisome at first taste, which assaults with a body of what can only be described as meatiness before fading to a distinct note of soy sauce. Could they have been rejected beans from another, more finicky brand? Do the fields in which they were grown lie adjacent to a reservoir of industrial run-off? Does Monsanto have a presence in Colombia? (An absurd question; never mind.) Assuming nothing, this terroir is still a terror.

The canteen sells four brands of coffee — Taster's Choice, Folgers, NescafĂ©, and this yellow-bag stuff. It's all instant, all representative of varying degrees of unpleasantness, but this one is by far the most popular. Price plays a larger role than palate; most inmates will spring for the high-dollar product when they're flush with funds. Personally, I am not enthusiastic about any of it. My first two years of captivity were determinedly caffeine-free specifically because my elitist taste buds insisted they were too good for such swill, that dump-and-pour would reduce me to some kind of oral paroxysm that would leave my poor tongue flaccid and useless in my mouth. Better, I thought, to go without.

At some point, however, I broke down. So much time had passed since a truly decent coffee had touched my lips I wondered whether the difference wouldn't just go unnoticed, as if all that gourmet Guatemalan could be expunged from my sensory memory by anything short of catastrophic brain damage. I sipped and winced like an alcoholic resorting to mouthwash, but, all the same, I did sip.

Of course, there was guilt: What would my barista say? There was even a nightmare about coming clean to friends at a celebratory dinner, opening up with prison horror stories.

"So after the stabbing on the yard, even though I knew it wouldn't do my stomach any good, I went straight to my cell for a hot cup of coffee, some music to lose myself in. I couldn't believe what I'd just seen."

"Oh my god, that's awful."

"It was. I mean, it happened right in plain view but nobody seemed to care what was going on. The guy was covered in blood, and —"

"No, I meant about the coffee. You actually drank instant?"

To which my only possible reply, like some sad, grizzled veteran defending wartime atrocities, was, "If you had been there, you'd understand."