Telling a Lie, One Black Coffee at a Time

Feature image by bortonia via Getty Images

My body is scarred with stories. Here’s where a knife slipped and cut my knee. Here on my palm is where my hand was sliced with an errant shard of glass. My left pupil is the worst performer of the pair due to the time I took a blast of glass directly in the face and some shrapnel found its way into my eyes. Three near-death experiences haunt my dreams. Whenever I see a ladder or a big mirror, my body remembers falling from six feet in the air or being pinned against a wall as sheets of mirror smashed against me.

In a former life, I was a construction worker. A good one, strong and hearty and capable. Fearless. When I thought masculinity might save me, I immersed myself, like one might if they’re afraid of snakes. My body was a vessel through which I channeled my misplaced masculinity, and I treated it as expendable. I liked my work dangerous, my demeanor aggressive and my coffee black. Maybe if I throw myself to the mercy of the pit, I will shed my fear of all that surrounds me.

This was all a construct, a carefully calculated illusion that took new life over decades. The first cup of coffee I drank was when I was 13, at an old folks home that all of us students who yearned to spend more days outside of school than in it volunteered at. In the cafeteria of Macauley Lodge, I drank my first cup of coffee in a white styrofoam cup with a jury of my peers I found myself desperate to impress. When they asked if this was my first time, I mustered all my confidence to say no, I drank it every morning, with my most convincing lying voice. A cardboard box, perforated at the mouth that opened to reveal cubes of sugar was passed around, and I waved it off with the confidence of someone I was not but thought I should be. I take my coffee black.

I adored coffee from that moment, my first true love.

White styrofoam was the vehicle through which coffee was delivered unto me for many years. In cafeterias and break rooms and waiting areas of hospitals. When I was 13 my mom got sick, and my life of visiting her in the hospital began. Coffee gave me a confidence I didn’t find elsewhere, and for a few Canadian coins you could get a styrofoam cup full of coffee brewed by a weathered, beaten down vending machine right by the sliding exit doors.

Our high school didn’t have coffee, not for kids anyway. Teachers would bring with them a coffee that stunk of the sweetness of alcohol, another vice I had taken too early, although that one in secret. When a teacher would take a break to the staff room, they always dipped into the boiler room on their way back to class, which most of us knew was their in-house speakeasy. Stumbling over their words they would teach us fractured French, often forgetting what they had taught you the day before or, when the cup smelled particularly sweet, they would forget the lesson they had started minutes earlier.

Coffee was a means to an end, and a vehicle to help forget.

When I turned 18, I started working for my dad at his glass shop downtown on 4th Avenue. Previously I had worked in mens fashion, a low stakes retail job where we mostly drank coffee and wondered why no one came in to shop for clothes that were two years out of season. The big moneymaker at this job was to sell Cuban cigars to American tourists and teach them how to smuggle them across the border. I learned that old men listen to you — when they read you as another man with a secret trick to share — if you’re holding a mug of dark black coffee in your hand. A mug of hot coffee, no matter the quality of flavor, is a sleight of hand trick. Pay no mind to the ways in which I fail to impress, have you noticed I drink my coffee like a man?

Moving into construction meant having to learn to be a man in a way that I was uncomfortable with. Over the years, I had come to understand myself as someone who didn’t want to be masculine, but I lacked the cultural awareness of any way out of my situation. Maybe I had missed the day at school when they tell you about switching genders, maybe a teacher whose coffee was a little too sweet forgot to make that part of the lesson that day. My first day wearing steel toed boots and safety gloves, I surveyed the men around me as they hurried and sweat and swore as they cut themselves on knives and glass, and something in my brain broke. I poured a cup of black coffee from the $20 Cuisinart coffee machine by the door to the shop, the one which had a big sign that said danger, only those wearing steel toed boots can enter, and realized I had to toughen up if I wanted to survive this world.

And so I did. When something was too risky, I waved the danger away and said I would do it. I cut myself on sheets of glass and swore at my hands to toughen up, to develop skin so thick I wouldn’t need gloves anymore. I grew a beard long, thick, and unruly and wore plaid jackets still smoking from the burn holes that loose embers from an angle grinder had burned into the exterior. I was like a cartoon of a man if you were challenged to draw one from memory.

My respite during the day was coffee, which I drank dark and black with pride. When others in the shop — new hires and cautious young people — would go for the creamer and the sugar, I would scoff and hold my posture straight and stiff. Peacocking around with a cup of Maxwell house so black it rivaled the night sky.

In my off hours, away from the posturing of the work space, my misplaced faith in masculinity had absorbed my personality and smothered my desires to break free of it. At night, I drank brown liquor, scotch whiskey and bourbon. I took it straight and bitter, like my life.

Black coffee at light, whiskey at night became a personality to put on display and hide behind. At my local coffee shop, the owner would test me by adding shots to my American without warning. One day after drinking it all she looked at me with disbelief and laughed and with a lilt in her voice she told me there were seven shots of espresso in that cup. How are you still alive she asked.

Was I?

People knew I drank my coffee black. Whenever coffee runs happened, they didn’t even ask me what I wanted. When others — those with true confidence in themselves and no airs to put on — got cappuccinos with perfect foam and a sweet smell, I looked from the corner of my better eye, bitter with jealousy. Part of me wondered what it tasted like, part of me didn’t dare start down that road, fearful of where it led. I had created a careful set of rules around my life, and there was to be no deviating away from the norms, lest we find too many new things outside the boundaries of civility.

In place of answering the questions about myself I feared, the ones that lived and floated around in my brain about my gender and my sexuality and how so much of this felt wrong, I leaned into using my vice as a front. Coffee snob was an easy hole to fall into, and my apartment became full of expensive devices with which to make endless cups of the same kind of coffee. I was at my local shop so often the owner made me my own mug that says I DON’T WORK HERE in big letters so people could differentiate me from the staff. I hid away in endless recyclable to-go cups and free coffee punch cards. Anything to help push the questions to the back of the mind.

No defense is perfect, there is always a hole in the wall.

Innocently enough, my friend the coffee monger offered to make me something new. She had grown tired and bored of making me the same order day in and day out, and didn’t I want to try something new? I was fearful but tired. I had lived this way since I was 13, and keeping up appearances wears on you over the years. She made me a latte, a simple coffee with foam and a little heart drawn with the remnants of a stainless steel milk frothing mug.

My own heart lifted and soared with the first sip of that latte. Even as I was discovering my body to be less than tolerant of lactose in that moment, I had never tasted anything so perfect. This is my new drink.

Like a rock rolling down a hill, drinking a latte began to gather new growth. Soon I began to trim my beard, take pride in my presentation. I wondered about my fashion and whether I was being bold enough. I began to care for the person I saw in the mirror looking back at me. A weight was shedding from my shoulders.

I started to look for joy in the world around me and looked for a way out of the lines I had drawn around myself decades earlier. I took a new job, a desk job working for an arts non-profit, far away from the masculine labyrinth I nearly lost myself in. I cared for myself, worried for my future, and began to ask questions of myself in place of the demands I placed on myself.

One night, late in the fall as the leaves fell to the snow-covered ground, I came out as trans to my then-partner. Buoyed by the misplaced confidence of brown liquor and the promise of coffee to wash it all away the next day, I told her who I really was. I wasn’t this comical portrait of masculinity I had carefully pieced together over time. It was all an act.

I wasn’t yet aware just how many aspects of my personality were contrived, but coffee had been the first block removed from the tower. Everything was still to tumble and fall, but you have to remove something to see the strength of the structure, and removing my obsessive need for coffee to be rigidly black showed a withering tower with nowhere left to grow, only a height from which to fall.

In the years since, so many things about who I know myself to be have changed. I still drink my coffee black at home, but I’m far less precious about it. When I’m out of the house, the world is an endless mystery. On most days, I love a latte, with oat milk to protect my uneasy stomach, but the right words scrawled on a chalkboard can catch my eye and change my direction in a moment. I can request the latest fad flavor (that in reality is usually a disappointment) with ease. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

My body retains the scars of the stories of where I have been, which live on as a warning to myself. These are the rigid scars of control, of trying to be something I am not so badly I’m willing to die for it. They are interesting tales to tell when my fiancé asks about the scar on my wrist she’s never noticed before, or when someone catches a glimpse of the raised marks on my back. Heed my words, lest you end up like me: marked by time and foolishness. Change your ways, live not a life of structure, chaos bears the sweetest flavor.


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Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 30 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. Brilliant article that could have been about me with a few details changed. I only wish I had read this years ago and not ended up the closeted middle aged trans woman I have become. I only hope it helps other people realise who they really are before it’s too late…

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