Cafe con Leche con Amor

Each weekday morning by 6:45 AM, I fly down the stairs into the kitchen slipping my arms through my sweater or hopping as I slide my feet into my shoes. On the kitchen counter sits a steaming, ready to go mug of Cuban coffee and milk- café con leche– made for me by my husband.

TS Eliot measured J. Alfred Prufrock’s life with coffee spoons; I measure love with cafecito, a shot of dark bitter espresso, hot milk, and sweetener. It is the embodiment of the tropics, of Latin America, of mi esposo, my Latino husband of almost twenty years.

A cuppa joe, to go. I carry my love with me and commute home to him each night.

We met in Miami, where the pastels of Floridian-set television shows really exist. Humid, balmy tropical nights and days were so hot the tar on the roads would soften and buckle. He had returned to his hometown the year before, moving in with his mother while she adjusted to widowhood. He had been aimlessly bumming around Northern Africa where he was fulfilling a bit of wanderlust when he received news of his dad’s illness. He found a job teaching English at a local inner-city high school and got to know his father as an adult before his dad succumbed to a final heart attack.

When I met him, I was married. My first husband and I brought our troubled relationship back stateside from West Africa where we had served in the Peace Corps. I was offered a secondary English teaching job within a day of applying. The district recruiter thought my time and patience adjusting to the ways of a remote Togolese village would prepare me to classroom manage impoverished urban teens.

By the fall, my new work colleagues had helped me find a solo studio apartment and file a restraining order against my first husband. The divorce was finalized in January. No fault. I swore off men and thought I would get to know me for a while. I had wrung myself out of love, I thought.

Three weeks later, my second husband knocked on my door. Hawaiian shirt over a black tee shirt flapping in the warm February ocean breeze, he stood on my stoop. He had spontaneously stopped by, thinking I would be lonely on my birthday, so newly single.

As a friend, he had introduced me to Cuban coffee on the way home from work a few times. Little did I know, he had transformed my life. I was hooked.

I changed out of my sweatpants, taken by the sweet gesture.

We walked a few streets over into Coconut Grove, where open-aired bars and restaurants catered to a Tuesday night crowd of young, beautiful Miamians and college students. A Jamaican bar, the Hungry Sailor — now long closed–blasted Reggae music, so we entered and ordered some Red Stripes. I remember fiddling with the label as the bottle sweated. His black eyes were mesmerizing. I fell in love with the possibility of him in my life that night.

On our way home, we accidentally bumped arms awkwardly trying, and not trying, to connect physically. In the middle of an intersection- crowds, noise, and partiers roiling around us- he grabbed my hand. We both looked down at it knowing the implications of our intertwined fingers.

He pulled me into an alcove on a shadowy quiet street, one block from my house, and said:

“I’ve been wanting to kiss you all night.” He did. We did. That was it.

We taught at the same school. I was newly out of a relationship. He had already told the principal he was resigning, as he intended to venture away from Florida again trying to find himself and his purpose in the process. A friend cautioned him that I brought too much baggage into a relationship. Despite the complexities, we started to see each other. A battered gray metal coffee pot appeared on my stovetop, and a coffee can of Café Bustelo shared space in the pantry.

At the end of the school year, he did leave. He rode with a buddy to Texas, hopped a plane to Denver, worked at a casino in Central City, helped a friend move to Las Vegas, rented a car to get to LA, dug a ditch in Sacramento, and took a temp job in Seattle. He called me from a pay phone at Bumbershoot, Seattle’s annual music festival. Over the straining notes of a live concert, he said that the coffee was great, but he was coming back. He missed me.

He arrived back in Miami on Halloween. We immediately went out for café con leche. He moved his stuff back into his mother’s house, but the metal pot parked itself at my house once again, and the daily cup appeared on my countertop each morning.

We packed up my two-seater Toyota Corolla and took off for Washington state a few days after school let out. While meandering across the country, we stopped for coffee and baseball games along the way. Under the shadow of the St. Louis arch, I put down my book and asked about the game. I fell in love a second time when his sparkling eyes and animated hands told me the story of America through baseball.

We made it to Seattle and found teaching jobs as Hurricane Andrew hit a line drive through Miami. I watched the CNN tape loop of a sailboat displaced two blocks away from its marina, bobbling in the deluged parking lot of my former studio apartment.

We walked around Green Lake, near the University of Washington, even catching eyes with Kurt Cobain and a pregnant Courtney Love one afternoon. We smiled at each other; we were just two couples enjoying the Seattle summer.

His students told him to propose to me at the Space Needle. He did, on one knee as the patrons of the slowly revolving restaurant looked on and cheered. We married at a bed and breakfast at the base of Mt. Rainier. We had landed in coffee city and got to know the Pacific Northwest on the weekends as we sampled the brews of each quaint café.

One of my student’s dads managed a franchise of a local coffee shop. She told me that her dad said the company was going nationwide and that I should buy stock. I didn’t. The company is ubiquitous now.

We hauled our first son overseas. First, to Korea, where our parents sent Cuban coffee through the mail to us –the packages frequently torn open in Customs, agents perhaps checking to see if contraband had been hidden in the dark roast. Then, we sojourned to Colombia for another teaching assignment and found that the world’s best coffee is all exported. What remained in country was murky, weak and undrinkable. My mother in law sent us bricks of Colombian coffee. The other expat teachers came by for cups of liquid heaven. I savored my morning jolt with my husband on the patio of our condo overlooking the Caribbean before we walked across the street to our sea-side school in a 500-year-old colonial town.

We returned to Miami to teach and to add another coffee bean to our family. We found teaching jobs and commuted together, our takeout tumblers nestled in the car cup holders. The smell of Cuban cafecito wafted down the hallways of our school around 1:00 pm each day. Students carried around thimbles of coffee, which we threw back before we started our afternoon classes. The caffeine kick put a little samba into our lesson plans.

One more move brought us to metro Atlanta where the drink of choice is sweet tea, pronounced “swite tie” by the locals. I can’t stomach it, but my husband and kids drink it by the gallon. The local grocery stores stock Latin products, so our brand of Colombian dark finely ground roast in its sunshine yellow package is stocked on the bottom shelf of the coffee aisle. Five metal stovetop espresso pots gather dust in the garage as I upgraded my husband’s coffee making equipment last Father’s Day to a small countertop espresso machine.

I don’t miss the burnt steel and rust, scorched taste when the pot steamed a few seconds too long on the burner. Our relationship passed the twenty-year mark and our wedding anniversary is closing in on its second decade. My non-coffee drinking years, like my first marriage, are just a distant memory.

Home brewed is best. It is the daily reminder of my relationship. I fall in love each day with my first sip. It is thick, strong, spicy, pungent, sultry and omnipresent. I count on my love steaming on the kitchen counter each morning. I count on my Love in the kitchen, pressing cup to lips, pressing his lips to mine, the taste of coffee on his breath, as I grab my cup to go.