Peet’s Coffee Charleston Rd.: Coconut Black Tie (Palo Alto, CA)
I taught myself to like coffee through sheer force of will. I’d take sip after tiny sip from the plastic cup perched on the table next to me, a ring of condensation blooming around the edges as the ice melted, watering down my coconut-and-condensed-milk-sweetened concoction. I swallowed the last lukewarm drops before heading home for the night, proud that I’d finished my drink at last. I’d made the bitter decision to become a coffee drinker.
I’d always found coffee too strong to taste good. I took sips from my mother’s morning brew, mixed only with cream, and grimaced as each sip overpowered my tastebuds. But in my junior year of high school, that changed—or rather, I changed it. I needed caffeine to deal with the mounting pressure of school, but it was more than that. The aesthetic of coffee attracted me—sipping from large mugs, admiring latte art, finding the sweet in the bitter. My unfortunate dislike of the taste barred me from the rich, dark depths I craved access to.
My first journey into coffee took place in an unassuming environment. The Peet’s Coffee on Charleston sits snugly between an overpriced grocery store, an insurance company, and two barber shops perpetually lacking customers, in a tiny plaza bordered by bustling suburban streets. The mid-afternoon rush includes a sea of stay-at-home moms desperate for a pick-me-up, retirees looking for yesterday’s paper, and stressed-out high schoolers armed with AP notes—rearranging tables, ordering too little, and staying too long.
This scene defined my junior year. Here, I memorized the US presidents in order, the Krebs cycle, and proofs-by-induction. I learned to hug a friend through the escalating stress of midterms, to find moments of laughter amid high school’s monotony. More of my waking hours passed at Peet’s than at my own home. Back then, no matter the time, I’d find one or two of my friends studying at a square table under the soft light. We’d reemerge hours later, the scent of ground coffee and the blurred sound of voices following us into a warm California dusk.
Peet’s Coffee Charleston Rd.: Havana Cappuccino (Palo Alto, CA)
It doesn’t snow in California, and so our holidays seem like a performance, but I’ll always associate winter with home. As I’ve grown, it’s become harder and harder to find joy in the holiday season: It feels like another chore on a long list. Yet even during times of stress, stepping out of a chilly, gray December day into the enveloping warmth of Peet’s induces a moment of cheer in even the most sleep-deprived—eye bags softened under twinkling lights, quiet strains of holiday music easing headaches and heartaches alike.
Through warm cinnamony conversations, we unravel layers of ourselves. In the middle of the crowd, I speak and listen myself into existence. A seemingly de-individualised coffee chain becomes, for a moment, a world all our own. It takes on a new light, malleable to our touch, our words.
In December 2019, I needed a space to speak my identity—or, at least, speak around my identity—and find a place to hold it. In my life, I have encountered few explicitly “queer” spaces. But, for a moment, purely by claiming it as my own, I let Peet’s become such a space. Here, I said, out loud for the first time, “I think I’m probably asexual.” Here, I first admitted that my feelings are an unknowable territory to me—that I don’t understand the difference between platonic and romantic attraction, that I never have and don’t understand how other people do. Here, I first heard my friend echo my feelings back to me and felt some sense of relief. Felt, for a moment, infinitely less alone.
And the entire time, the coffee shop world milled about around me. Each person living their own lives, blissfully unaware of the small role they’d just played in the shifting of mine.
Dave’s Coffee: Lavender Latte (Providence, RI)
As the pandemic tightened its grip, coffee “for here” was no longer a possibility. And I missed it. But we’ve all had to make do during these times—sipping the comforting swell of strangers’ voices from to-go cups alongside the bite of espresso and the nuttiness of oat milk.
My first semester at Brown held, without a doubt, some of my loneliest moments. I’d find myself up at night, leaning my head against the smooth wall and listening to the voices of partiers in the room next door. Strangely, being around people made me feel the most alone. Painfully aware that I was expected to make new friends, my body recoiled into itself, unsure of how to edge toward connection. I felt like a ghost around new people who didn’t care about me. In my 4 a.m. moments I sometimes wondered, if I died in my room, how long would it take until someone noticed I was gone?
To get myself off campus, I started taking weekly trips to Dave’s Coffee, walking down the hill in the icy cold. I’d cradle the brief warmth of lavender coffee in my hands and feel myself thaw a little. Aware that I looked strange, the cold air mixing with my hot breath, melting mascara down my cheeks, I’d turn toward aloneness. But in these moments, I felt somehow less lonely than I did on campus. The coffee brought me back to a world outside my dorm room. For the time it took to gulp down 12 ounces, I became a little more corporeal.
Behind the Museum Cafe: Hojicha Latte (Portland, OR)
Getting to a cafe just as it opens means you avoid the bustle. You get comfortable silence, the world waking up around you, a morning cup of love and the choice of who to share it with.
I spent one such comfortable morning in July of 2021 in Portland, with two of my closest friends. We’d driven ten hours through the endless flat fields of northern California and under the breathtaking starry blanket of central Oregon skies at 2 a.m. to get to this new corner of the world: our belated senior trip. On the third morning of our trip, we found ourselves sitting in a Japanese cafe behind the Portland Art Museum. We learned the cafe owners were also from San Francisco. They had spent the past ten years in Portland—we’d spent the past two days there. In a few months, I’d return to Providence, and my friends would be in LA and Pennsylvania—three corners of a too-large triangle drawn across the US.
The cafe filled an expansive building with floor-to-ceiling windows and lanterns floating from the ceiling. We sat outside, sipping our tea lattes and basking in the early morning sun before the heat turned harsh. Later, my caffeine-addicted heart would crave my foregone coffee fix, but in the moment, the smooth sweetness of the tea tasted just right. But with each mouthful, my heart clutched at a preemptive sense of loss. I could feel that something was about to shift between us. Soon our love for each other would be forced to warp, adapt to flowing across state lines. I knew then that time was precious, that our old selves were melting away with every passing second.
I offered my friends a sip of my drink.
Small Format: Maple Butter Latte (Providence, RI)
I’ve always been attached to the idea of sharing—sharing drinks, sharing food, sharing space. With people you know and love, and with people you’ve never met but are still connected to in some way.
In Providence, I ran into the first explicitly queer shared space that truly felt welcoming to me. It’s the sort of space I often dreamed of, but never believed really existed—a queer cafe and art space. A pride flag blows in the wind outside the small, colorful building. Inside, the walls are lined with prints by queer artists, and plants hang from the ceiling. A handful of leaves pinned to a painted tree on the wall answers the question, “How are you a part of another? How is another a part of you?”
The first time I visited Small Format, I felt my baby-queer heart bubbling with earnest excitement. As someone perpetually living in a precarious liminal space between out and closeted, coming where I could feel fully safe and celebrated as a queer being lit a candle somewhere in the depths of my soul.
I still don’t fully understand my own identity—and don’t truly know that I ever will—but in that moment, as the sweet maple latte warmed my heart through my pink cup, I felt a little more okay with that.
The Shop: Oat Milk Cappuccino (Providence, RI)
Somehow, loneliness slowly fades to the background. I realized this one Sunday morning, sitting in India Point Park with a friend, trying to savor my coffee sip after tiny sip in comfortable silence. This is another coffee to-go, but it still holds the comfort of coffee shop bustle in its foam. It’s from The Shop, which is closer to my sophomore year home than Dave’s. My go-to drink when I don’t know what to order is a cappuccino. I sit, breathing in the comforting, slightly bitter, slightly nutty scent, and think about how things have shifted in my life over the past few weeks.
Through some quirk of fate, I’ve found the comfort of space in the hearts of people I care about. People I want to make coffee and tea for. People I want to hold close. I no longer feel quite so ghostly around others, only fading every now and then. My world here is still hard for me to grasp, but I’ve found more people to share a cup of coffee with.
Of course, there’s still a dull ache in my chest— perpetually missing pasts I’ve left behind or shifted away from, each finishing their coffee in one of the various cafes of my past. I miss the people inhabiting those moments with me, the conversations captured in mid-air. I miss the half-forgotten feelings that still fill those past homes, ready to overwhelm me whenever I step foot in them again.
But for now, I try to remind myself to finish my coffee before it gets cold.