The Center of the Universe is a Coffee Stain

You have made it exactly 43 minutes into your Wednesday morning before that bold wardrobe choice becomes a familiar lament.

White? Haven’t you learned?

The coffee stain is as inoffensive as a coffee stain can be on a cream-colored sweater plucked from the bottom drawer while you ran down the clock of your morning routine trying to figure out how to dress for Denver weather, another failure to add to the pile. You wipe the rest of the coffee off your chin like a toddler elbow deep in birthday cake. Like yourself in those photos in your mom’s closet that you always stare at for too long when you find them. Last time you visited, you held them up close to your face, looking for something only your toddler self can reveal to your three-decade-old self about happiness, about abandon, about not caring what others think even when they’re cooing in your face.

You did not find it.

The elongated drop now settling in on the fabric covering your belly doesn’t seem to have any answers either, even though it is both the center and the entirety of its own universe of misplaced and broken things, including yourself. But this blackness is not barren. It somehow sprouts life daily, buds of bitterness and deep-rooted weeds of angry thoughts and dismissive self-loathing. Somewhere deep in this swirling collapse of gravity, somewhere in the constellation of what it is that makes up this universe, the blackness froths and spits, pulling all these precious little thoughts into a dark and disintegrating center, and getting some of its mess on your sweater.

You push back from your chair and meander to the office bathroom to survey the damage. It’s less noticeable than anticipated. The ribbon of yellow at the bottom of the sweater and a scattered few black pinstripes sort of run optical interference, but the stain is still peeking out for the lucky visual scavenger with more than a passing glance to spare.

Now, the truly hard decision confronts you in the mirror, along with the stain that might have been larger, darker were it not for that last-second jut of your chin.

Let it dry and hope it’s less noticeable? Blot it out with a paper towel and spend the rest of the day dusting off those weird little pilled balls? Soak it with water and walk around for another hour with a big wet sign that lets everyone know you’re incapable of keeping food or coffee in your mouth and off your clothing?

The path of least resistance has spared you from further self-humiliating exploits before, so you leave the stain be. It’s already dry anyway, straddling two territories separated by a black stripe. It answers to no organized government.

The offices lining your floor are mostly empty at the moment, so you let your body move loosely in the way you do when no one is really watching. You notice that your arms are swinging almost cartoonishly when you walk back to your cubicle, which you sometimes call a “cubby” because it makes you laugh for some reason. Your swinging arms remind you somehow of your first plane ride, or at least the trip to the airport with your dad, your brother and your stepbrother, back when nontravelers could actually follow travelers to their gate and wave from big glass windows. You swung your arms like any 10-year-old would bounding through an airport and spending an entire hour watching big metal birds take flight before you would do the same. Nobody ever told you that you couldn’t fly, and now it was nothing but true.

You remember feeling like such a grownup, flying to see your aunt and uncle more than 1,000 miles away in a different state all by yourself! You didn’t care about your brother, three years older than you, batting your ponytail. You didn’t care about the comments he made that were meant, but maybe not intended, to make you feel something bad about yourself. You vaguely remember your dad acting like he was the same age as you or your brother or your stepbrother. You vividly remember their shadows waving at you from behind a large glass window as you looked back at where they were supposed to be from the plane, all while the flight attendant that was supposed to “escort” you struggled to tighten the strap over your tiny lap. There might have been a stain on your overalls because your dad cared less about perfectly polished children than your mom did, but only by a little.

But you honestly don’t remember. Probably because you didn’t care.

You look down at the blackness left in your coffee cup, dubiously and treacherously still, and you wonder if the blackness--the swirling, collapsing, spitting one--knows where your sense of self has gone, an amulet lost in all the frothing chaos. You wonder if it swallowed her or simply hid her like an omnipotent smoke bomb. Where else would she be? How long have you been trying to find her so that you may revive her, breathe air into her lungs in a final act of kindness to the person you want to call yourself? Where could she have gone if not into that blackness?

You’ve been staring at the black coffee left in your corporate white mug that isn’t really yours for longer than other sane people might. You realize that you might be addicted to the cyclical masochism of convincing yourself, as you lift the barely warm mug to your lips, that maybe she lives in the moments in which you find some reason to love her. That maybe, just maybe, you can accomplish something as simple as drinking coffee in a white sweater.