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All the Mugs I’ve Loved and Lost
A memoir, with ceramics
I stood in a tidy kitchen with a fairly well-off man who inexplicably lived with two other grown men. Their apartment was gigantic, beautiful, polished, and in a perfect location. I’d been seeing him for a couple of months but was starting to accept that I would likely never be able to exist in a successful long-term relationship with someone who would choose elegance and refinement over privacy.
He offered me an orange and I asked for a cup of coffee. I took a pale blue mug with no handle and it fit perfectly in my hand. After one sip, he remarked that the acid content in the orange and the coffee would likely rot my insides. I ignored him and looked down at the mug.
“I’m kind of in love with this coffee cup,” I said and he told me I could have it because no one in the house would miss it.
I finished my coffee and washed the mug. I placed it on the drying rack and decided not to take it home with me because there was something deeply heartbreaking about being offered a gift simply because no one else wanted it. Before I left, he haphazardly wrapped the mug in paper towels and placed it carefully in one of my hands. He smiled and I gave him an awkward thumbs-up.
The mug sat on my counter for a few days until he asked me to return it. He told me it was actually his roommate’s mug and he needed it back. I returned it and visited the house a few more times. I felt surprisingly embarrassed and guilty for taking something that was so insistently offered to me.
After my first year working in a lab as a visiting artist, I was known as the girl who always made too much coffee. My coworkers kept jokingly blaming me for their shaking hands.
When I started, I always drank my coffee out of a mug with the words “World’s Best Engineer” written in bold, red letters. None of us were engineers (or anything close to it) and we all thought it was comical to drink out of the mug. As I began to fall in love with my job and the people I worked with, I started to resent the irony of the mug. Increasingly, I found myself reaching for the pathetically earnest cat mug instead.
When I arrived for my last day of work, coffee was made and I filled up the cat mug. I sat at my desk and wondered how many more positions or people in my life would fuel such ardent sincerity. “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers started playing on the speakers and my coworker unconsciously tapped her finger to the beat. I naively consoled myself with the thought that there would be many more jobs like that one in the world.
I ordered an Americano with no milk and my ex-boyfriend looked too pleased about it. He held up two fingers and said, “two of those please.” He jabbed his elbow into my ribs like he was congratulating a buddy on a job well done. I hadn’t changed my coffee preferences since we dated but I had acknowledged a lactose intolerance and become too socially anxious to inquire about milk alternatives.
“For here or to go?” We gave opposing answers but settled on sitting outside. We drank our coffee from generic, off-white diner mugs. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one. He’d picked up this habit after we broke up and I didn’t smoke so I shook my head. When he finished his coffee, he dropped his cigarette into the mug. I thought about the person who would have to fish it out. He probably didn’t.
I lovingly ran my finger around the edge of my empty coffee cup and daydreamed about when we used to sit on his balcony drinking coffee out of diner mugs and chatting easily about the photographs we wanted to take. It startled me how quickly we can separate people from objects but how long it takes to separate objects from people.
I had just decided to move and I was in the middle of the first stage of packing. I was staring at a mug that said, “Camping is in tents.” I never truly understood it. I know it’s a play on the word “intense” but the fact that “intents” is an actual word with a separate meaning always annoyed me. One of my best friends gave it to me. I am actively against the idea of camping and she bought the mug as a humorous Secret Santa present when we were in our early twenties. As a person who never ascribed sentimental value to particular objects, I knew she would have supported me throwing it out. So, I did.
I fretted for the rest of the day about the decision. I wondered why I needed the mug to hold sentimental value to her to acknowledge and respect its importance to me.
My boyfriend was unwrapping a gift. The wrapping paper was grey and silver and covered in a minimal, nearly indiscernible print. It catered to his love for simplistic, industrial things.
He methodically opened the present and peeled off the tape, sticking it to the edge of the dresser. The process was impossibly slow and I could feel my impatience fill the room. When he finally pulled the hand-thrown clay mug from the paper, I could tell he genuinely loved it. He passed it over to me and I admired its texture. It felt like a beach rock and I expressed my own love for it. I asked if I could use it sometimes. He agreed emphatically. Though we lived together and I knew it was coming home with me, I started to mourn the loss of this perfect mug.
I spent the next month ignoring my increasing discomfort in our relationship and focused heavily on using the mug as much as possible.
I was standing in a thrift store contemplating the exceedingly bad day I was having. I’d just gone to the doctor for the sixth time about the same issue and I still didn’t know what was wrong with me. As someone who is (against better judgment) constantly looking for concrete ways to quell my anxiety, unsolved health issues are especially wrenching.
Between a set of baking dishes, I found a mug that looked slightly crooked. The slanted pattern worked as an unintentional optical illusion and it was heavier than it looked. I carried it around the store, agonizing over the purchase of this $4.00 mug. I have always given too much thought to every purchase. Sometimes, I contemplate cheaper items longer than expensive ones.
I decided not to buy the mug and placed it next to a vintage cookie jar. I am often comforted more by imagining the opportunities money promises than by the opportunities themselves.
We bought matching coffee cups. They were the same except for their slightly different shades of green. We shared coffee every morning. After four months, I left the country for an indeterminate amount of time. We didn’t have any concrete plans to reunite or to continue our relationship. He left his mug in the home where we’d spent our summer. I took mine with me. I tried not to think about what that meant.
When I returned, we bought different mugs. One was black with a sleek handle and the other was angular, cylindrical, and didn’t have a handle. I liked to think that the impetus to fulfill our collective needs was replaced by a desire to saturate our relationship with our wonderfully disparate selves. While I romanticized and assigned metaphorical meaning to the mugs, I know he never thought of them as anything more than things to drink out of. I am still in love with him and his unshakable practicality.
One of my best friends reached over and placed a pink mug of earl grey tea in front of me. I don’t drink tea unless I’m with her. She doesn’t drink coffee unless she’s with me. The surface of our friendship is dependent on compromise but the foundation is based on alliance.
When she first moved into her apartment, we always used the same blue mugs out of necessity. She rented her apartment furnished and it came with the two mugs, a couch, a bed, and some old magazines. Over the years, she amassed a collection of other mugs and misplaced the blue ones. I don’t find myself thinking about them. I wonder if the amount of meaning we ascribe to things is always predicated on how much loss they contain instead of how much love.