It all started with an accidental, well-brewed cup of coffee.
My girlfriend was sitting by the window when I passed it to her. She looked at the mug for a time, then sipped at it gingerly. Her eyes widened.
“This is… good,” she said.
“You sound surprised.”
“You usually make bad coffee,” she said.
It was, to be sure, my greatest shame as a coffee writer.
“Well, I mean, baby steps, right?” I said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and all that?”
She nodded, and looked back at the mug. It was like she’d found something in it that she didn’t know was there before.
The following weekend I brewed another cup of coffee.
She was sitting by the window again when I passed it to her. I watched her sip from the mug and pause to think.
“This is… not good,” she said.
“I think maybe the grind is too… coarse?”
She looked into the depths of the mug, like she had heard my words and knew them individually, but couldn’t understand their meaning together.
“Where did you get this coffee?” she asked.
That day, we went to a local cafe in Kichijōji. She hunched down by the counter, watching the barista pour. Concentration was etched into her features. Focus seeped from her eyes.
“Do you do this?” she asked, pointing to the Kalita dripper.
“No, I use something different,” I said. “I use a V60.”
She looked at me for a moment, then at the barista, then back at the coffee as it dripped into a beaker. Her gaze was intense. Beads of sweat grew upon the nervous barista’s brow, a kind-looking young man I had never seen before.
Later, we sat on the staircase in front of the coffee shop.
“I don’t know why you don’t make coffee like this,” she said. “This is good coffee. Amazing coffee. Don’t you want to make coffee like this?”
There was a very particular hint of disappointment in her voice, and it haunted me the rest of the day.
The following weekend, she asked, “Can I make the coffee?”
“Sure,” I said. “Do you want any help?”
“No, I think I’ve got it,” she said. “I looked online. You just wait there.”
I sat by the window. I thought about how when we met she was like a leaf dangling from the tree outside; happy to just float along with the breeze. I wondered where this new person had come from, with a furrowed brow, bottomless curiosity, and acute intensity.
When I finally wandered into the kitchen, the air was warm and humid. The cramped space was dense with the weight of trial and error. The sink was full of coffee filters and coffee grinds.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“I’m doing something wrong,” she said, “I don’t know what.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “You’ll get better.”
She thought about my words like she was appraising their worth. She weighed their meaning and intent, judged their value, then shook her head.
“No. I need more coffee beans,” she said.
We spent the weekend wandering Tokyo, talking to baristas, drinking coffee, and buying beans. I was a twitchy, caffeinated mess; a packhorse loaded with coffee beans for someone else's single-minded obsession.
She was hungry for knowledge. She asked questions, took notes, and watched carefully. Temperature, grind size, filter type, bloom time, brew time, source location, elevation, the farmer’s name — anything and everything. It was all important.
Sometimes, I noticed a look on her face when a barista gave her the answers she was looking for, or when a cup of coffee truly impressed her. It was a fleeting moment, and one that never seemed to last quite long enough. For the longest time I had no idea what that look was, exactly.
I know now it was love.
The next day I woke up alone. There was a note on my desk that read: “Gone cupping. Be back late. XO”
I didn’t see my girlfriend that weekend except through Instagram photos for coffee cuppings in Tokyo. In each photo there was the same white blouse, the same tattered red notebook, and the same focused, furrowed brow.
I sat by the window sipping at another cup of a cold-brew experiment gone wrong, and tried to tell myself it was silly to feel jealous of a roasted fruit.
Even if that fruit was stealing my girlfriend.
One morning soon after, she presented me with her first well-brewed cup of coffee.
“This is good,” I said.
“You sound surprised.”
“I usually make bad coffee,” I said.
She smiled sadly, and looked at the mug in my hand.
“Something is still missing,” she said. “I can feel it. I can still do better. I need to do more.”
Slowly, my small apartment filled with coffee tools and paraphernalia. It took on the messy, scatterbrained look of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
I wondered if this was the coffee equivalent of leaving your toothbrush in a lover’s bathroom.
“Does this mean you’re moving in with me?” I said.
“How about when you brew a consistently good cup of coffee, we talk about next steps?” she said.
She laughed, and I laughed, and our voices muffled the sounds of my heart breaking into tiny pieces, which I swept under the bed later that evening.
Soon after, perhaps inevitably, she announced she was leaving her job.
“I start at the coffee shop in Kichijōji next week,” she said. “I am going to be a barista.”
Soon after that, perhaps also inevitably, she announced that she was taking another coffee job.
“I need to learn more,” she said, “I’m not learning fast enough. Also, I don’t have any money.”
And soon after that, also probably inevitably, she disappeared into her work; vanishing behind three different cafes and a host of seminars that together created what I imagined as a kind of coffee black hole.
And then, finally, a few weeks later, a phone call.
“We need to talk,” she said.
“This is Keita,” she said.
“Hello, Keita,” I said.
“He’s my boyfriend. My new boyfriend.”
“Oh,” I said. “He seems nice.”
“He knows about coffee. About flavor, I mean. He understands me.”
“I assume he can brew a consistently good cup of coffee, then,” I said.
“I know you probably saw this coming, but I wanted to say thank you in person,” she said. “If you hadn’t accidentally brewed that good cup of coffee, I wouldn’t have discovered my passion.”
I found myself wishing she had left out that word.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
I thought about saying something, but I didn’t. The truth was, I envied her passion for my simple daily ritual; I was just sad to think she’d outgrown me. So, I watched her and Keita put her coffee gear in boxes and pack them into the back of a small hatchback. Then she kissed me lightly on the cheek, nodded, and left.
I listened to the sound of their car fade into the distance while I brewed a cup of coffee. I wondered how long it would be before she left poor Keita for a roaster, or a coffee sourcer, or the charm of a plantation somewhere.
I didn’t think it would be long.
I took my cup of coffee to the window of my now-empty room, and looked at the trees for a time. I sipped from my mug, and smiled.
It struck me as silly to think our relationship would start and end with the very same thing.
An accidental, well-brewed cup of coffee.
Hengtee Lim is a Sprudge staff writer based in Tokyo. Read more Hengtee Lim on Sprudge.
Illustration by Kaori Nagata