Thirty Years in a Coffee Cup

IMG_3753 2I bet my future and measly graduate student savings on a coffee mug.

It was the shiny, inky indigo rim that made me walk closer. The potter added flecks of gold to the glaze that expressed, ever so modestly, as glittering stars against the almost black gloss that lined the inside of the mug and stopped just short of the flaring matte sky blue base on the outside.

It was a cup of night sky. The kind I had only seen at national parks or when lying on the beach in Maine at night, relieved and finding refuge in my glorious smallness.

There was no rational reason to believe that the mug would save me, but when I held it in my hands, I sensed its power. In that moment I felt on a purposeful course in the universe instead of drifting in the constant fear, insecurity, and loneliness that I had grown accustomed to as I dragged myself through graduate school after a debilitating breakup.

Clarksville Pottery’s original location was next to the import store where I worked when I wasn’t in class or biking. I had given my car back to the dealership during my first semester; voluntary repossession is what they called it. Carless, I often wandered into the pottery store during my breaks to look at the smooth, earthy housewares stacked on shelves and displayed in beautiful arrangements of potential domesticity.

I would trace the trails of the potter’s fingertips on the large plates and salad bowls with my hands. My world did not have lovely household items and homey touches; everything was raw and bare bones. Graduate school was the phoenix I had tied myself to this time and I was burning.

When I flipped the mug over, I felt the sting of the price tag in that place where desire, extravagance, and shame collide. I placed the cup on the shelf and walked back to work to finish unpacking items sent in huge crates from various places in Mexico.

This same scene repeated for several days until it didn’t. I picked up my cup of stars and brought it to the man at the register. He gave me and the item a glance over and asked if that would be all.

“No,” I answered, “I am interested in a set of eight.”

It was the only one of its kind in the store. The owner explained that he would have to contact the artist and warned that a small special order might take awhile. He went on to stress that there was no guarantee that the potter would be able to replicate the stars.

“There’s a lot of dumb luck in how the firing process works. You can’t just reliability conjure up a specific result.”

I would take my chances. The store owner kept my mug as the model for the other seven.

Four months and three cobbled-together payments later, I heard the message on my answering machine announcing that the set was ready. Before I left the store, I unwrapped each cup. None of the seven had the starriness of the original nor the balance of indigo to gold that I imagined. The owner had prepared me to expect the difference.

I made peace with my disappointment when I discovered the symmetry that each mug shared. There was a weighted uniformity that was unseen by the eye, but in my hands, it translated as a comforting heaviness. I could feel quiet mornings, meals with friends, coffee with lovers, even the laughter of children and the smell of wet dogs. It was all there in my hands, invisible but present.

The last of those eight mugs broke over a decade ago when it splintered against our porcelain sink. I kept a shard of the stars in my top drawer for years until I could hold its meaning in my heart and not stress over the jinx-it power of discarding such a powerful talisman.

I hadn’t thought of those mugs in forever until I stepped out of line at Anderson’s Coffee to pick up the unremarkable blue cup in the corner, the one with the shiny rim. There were no stars, and the shape was all wrong, but there was something about that indigo glaze at the top and the light blue matte finish at the bottom that made me remember.

I felt the lightning speed of thirty years spill over the sides with all the abundant messiness that has passed since I first picked up that cup of stars. The decades have been unruly and surprising, but never despairing and fearful like the tidy emptiness of my mid-twenties. I got back in line to order a pound of Sumatra beans, as intended, still holding the cup.

I had forgotten the depth of the darkness, those tiny seeds of expectation, the weighty hope, and all the random, infinite possibilities.

“There’s a lot of dumb luck in how the firing process works. You can’t just reliability conjure up a specific result.”