FOR MANY years, I have consistently made the worst cup of coffee on the planet.
Automatic-drip, percolated, instant, it doesn't seem to matter. If I make it, it looks like dishwater. Worse, it tastes like dishwater, although perhaps not quite as soapy. Family members, friends, total strangers take a sip of my coffee and their features instantly cloud over, as if something terrible has just occurred in their lives.
And, of course, it has. What's more traumatic than a lousy cup of coffee first thing in the morning? Maybe climbing out of bed at the age of 5 and finding your pet rabbit keeled over in his cage. But that's about it.
The psychological scars that come with a lifelong inability to make decent coffee are still with me, of course.
It's like anything else in life. If people keep telling you you're horrible at something, pretty soon you start to believe it. And after 20 years of hearing that my coffee stinks, I get the shakes when the subject is even mentioned.
A few years ago, I stopped going into the kitchen altogether because it brought back such horrible memories. Needless to say, I don't do any real cooking to speak of. Because if you screw up a simple cup of coffee, there is no use trying anything tricky such as, oh, a Western omelet.
If I served a Western omelet (God forbid), people would be dropping like flies. And pretty soon you'd have a fleet of ambulances screaming up to the sidewalk outside my house, discharging teams of grim-faced paramedics breaking out stretchers and thumbing through the latest medical texts on known household poisons.
Who needs that aggravation? Besides, it would only upset the neighbors. They're very quiet people and value their privacy a great deal. Certainly they can do without a lot of sirens wailing outside their door when they sit down to watch "Murder, She Wrote."
Speaking of murder, some years ago, I nearly killed a man with my coffee. Or so I thought.
The whole incident seems cloudy and out-of-focus in my memory, like something out of a Fellini movie. All I remember is, I had just poured some coffee for a friend.
Then I . . . I turned my back for an instant. And the next thing I knew, he . . . he was gagging and choking and waving his hands in the air.
I'm telling you, my heart was beating like a jackhammer. Geez, I thought, you really did it with the coffee this time. All I could envision was some hanging judge banging his gavel down hard and me serving 20 years to life in some dank prison cell with three weight lifter buddies.
Well, it turned out my friend wasn't choking on my coffee after all. He just had a cough lozenge lodged in his throat, which he freed easily enough with a sip of water (wouldn't touch the coffee.)
But, still. How would you like to have that on your conscience -- that your coffee almost killed a man? I don't see how you could live with that.
Me, I didn't sleep for weeks. (I also switched brands from Folgers to Maxwell House, although that's probably neither here nor there.)
It's funny, but by and large, folks seem fairly sympathetic when I sit down and explain this lifelong penchant for screwing up coffee.
Still, there's also a hint of something else in their voices. What is it I hear there -- disbelief? Exasperation?
It's almost as if they're thinking: "Wait a minute. With these modern auto-drip machines and percolators, how can anyone but a complete simpleton (no offense) screw up coffee anymore?"
Beats me, although that simpleton tag is not one I'm totally unfamiliar with, if you catch my drift.
All I know is, I can follow the brewing instructions to the letter. I can pour in the exact amount of water. I can scoop in the exact amount of coffee despite the trembling in my hands and the tears welling up in my eyes.
Yet as surely as night follows day, what emerges is a foul-smelling, murky swill that would make a buzzard queasy, never mind someone who'd just stumbled half-asleep to the breakfast table.
Nevertheless, people are invariably polite when first offered a steaming mug of this inky slop, perhaps owing to their desire not to start a fight at such an early hour.
Slowly they take a sip. And then their features cloud over as if something terrible has just happened in their lives. And, of course, it has.
Although the damage is done, it seems to me.