“The Illusion of a Clean Cup”

[Since the invitation is out there to post something connected to this year’s theme, I’ve chosen to post something I wrote a couple years ago, actually, but that for me comes closest to what it means to live an “embodied” life. — Dawn Comer]

The illusion of a clean cup.  That’s what we all want, isn’t it?  What we pay for?  The illusion that the cup we are using has been used by us alone, that ours is a solitary experience, that before we received our cup and after we return it, no lips have or ever will touch it but ours.  It’s not true, of course.  We know it is not true.  We know even if we don’t admit it to ourselves that we are just one of many to use this cup, just one of many in this coffee shop universe where people come and go, sip small sips, leave, sometimes returning, sometimes not. 

It’s when we find lip marks on our cup that we’re troubled, isn’t it?  Lip marks that should show up more often than they do.  Somehow our cup did not get washed properly.  Somehow the lip owner had stronger lips than the rest of us, lips powerful enough to leave their mark beyond washing.  And so they appear on the glass, white and rough against the clear smoothness.  We can’t see through the lip marks; they stop our vision, stop our boundless experience, screaming out another’s presence, another’s lips, another’s conversation or silence, joy or sorrow or indifference.

It’s almost embarrassing.

Maybe that’s why we don’t return the cup.  Maybe that’s why, instead, we dip our paper napkin in ice water and carefully wipe away the mark before putting our own lips to it, before even pouring our tea, strong and hot, inside.  No.  Not strong tea.  Not even hot.  Rather, as we pour the tea from its glass press, we can see that it’s weaker than we’d like, and even before tasting, we can feel that the tea is not boiling hot but nearly tepid.  It’s a disappointment, really.  Not so good as what we could make at home, and at home we would have no lip marks to contend with, at least none other than our own or other family members’.  At home, should we so desire, we could simply choose any of a dozen other cups.

So we sit, disillusioned of our illusion of a clean cup.

We’re not not enjoying ourselves, but our pleasures are different now.  We wonder whose lips those were, how alike or different we are from him or her, what the drink of choice had been, whether our lips might also leave marks on the cup.  Maybe it’s a magic cup, destined to bear the mark of the last drinker, carry it over to another person.  Not likely, but maybe.  Might be interesting if it were.  Our eyes are open wider now than they were before.  No longer do we look at the cup, at the pot of reserve.  Sometimes we take a sip, but each sip is an afterthought, something we do because it is there, resting at our wrist, and, really, it’s just an impulse that makes us pick it up, lift it to our lips, and drink.

Instead, we begin to look outward, watching the barrista blend steamed milk into espresso and mocha with a long stainless steel spoon, watch her top it with whipped cream and cover its beauty with a plastic lid.  And we think about how a paper cup is the only way to go if we really want to avoid lip marks, how paper is so totally individual, so totally personal that nobody has used the cup before us and nobody will use it after.  We think these things as we watch the woman with the paper cup turn her back to us and walk out the door.

Epiphany (or at least a Paul Auster chance-rules-the-universe moment).  We think back to the moment of our ordering, how a paper cup had been offered, how we bristled at the thought, how instead we specified, “A pot, please, for here.”  We think about how chancy it is to have even gotten tea this morning, how, had the café’s espresso machine not been accidentally turned off last night keeping the barristas from making espresso, we would have bought a latte instead.  We think about how, had we arrived twenty minutes later, we could have gotten a latte and would then have received a different cup, a clean cup.  We think about how chancy it was to have even gotten up this morning, how we went to bed late, didn’t set the alarm, yet awoke three minutes before the alarm would have woken us.  And we marvel.

Suddenly we feel so alive in spite of the tepid tea.  We watch the barrista with classy rectangular glasses and spiky black hair pour milk from a gallon jug into a stainless steel pitcher, insert a thermometer, steam, then pour the transformed milk into a disposable (always clean, never used) cup and lid it.  She hands it to a business-suited woman who walks, heels clacking against the hardwood floor.  We listen as a white-shirted man orders two dozen muffins and the black haired barrista says, “You’re kidding!” The man says he isn’t and asks if she can do it.  They both laugh as the rest of the staff scurry to find a big enough box. “It’s just the peer pressure of it,” says the young worker with the blonde ponytail as she bends over, retrieving muffins from the case.

They are all so beautiful, we think.  The man with his muffins who smiles as he signs the credit card slip, the woman who continues to box up muffins.  Even the man to our right who wears a hooded black sweatshirt and drinks coffee, black, from a tall clear mug.  The barrista with the spiky black hair glances in our direction as she steams milk and we wonder if she’s felt our watching, but she smiles and so seems not to mind if she has.

We glance back down at our once tepid, now cold tea, our lip smudges ringing the edge.  Looks so used, we think.  Sinatra sings, “It’s better to be happy in a cardboard shack than to be alone in a castle.”  A cold breeze from the rear door strikes us.  We shiver, bus our own dishes, and walk out the front door.  We are sustained.

The illusion of a clean cup.

That’s what we all want, isn’t it?


Leave a Reply