Cream & Sugar

I had my very first sip of coffee when I was 6 years old. Dad picked me up from school one Monday afternoon in his grey Toyota Corolla and took me straight to the Deja Brew in town. He didn't even stop to ask me if I wanted it, he just slid his card across the counter and said, "Two coffees, small and hot." I remember my blue Mary Janes swinging from my chair as I picked up the cup, a little hesitant. The smell was familiar; it smelled like Dad. Bubbles dotted the surface, and I imagined tiny fish swimming underneath. Hello, coffee fish, I said to myself.
Dad reached out with this finger and pushed the cup to my lips. A sharp taste burned my tongue as I forced the tiny sip down. I didn't like it, but I felt grown-up sitting across from my father sharing a cup of black coffee. He raised an eyebrow, inciting my opinion. I went in for another sip, and then another, and he just laughed. That was our way of communicating. We had our own silent language that said so much and so very little all at the same time. We were people of very few words, and I enjoyed his presence more than his conversation.
"This," he said, grabbing ahold of my cup, "is the only drug that's worth it." He got up from the table with our cups and tossed them into the trash. I wanted to tell him that I wasn't done, that I wanted to be a grown-up for a little while longer, but I kept my complaints hidden. Dad didn't like whining. I stood up, smoothing out the dress I wore the whole day specifically for this moment, and followed him back to the car.
Mom picked me up from school the rest of the week as usual. I wanted to feel like a grown-up again, so every afternoon, I stuck out my bottom lip and clasped my hands together. "Coffee?" She said no, of course. Dad was always the fun parent. That probably wasn't a very fair thought to have, but I was young. Responsibility and fun were complete opposites to me, and so were my parents, for that matter.
The next Monday, Dad drove us to Deja Brew again and ordered the exact same thing. Two coffees, small and hot. We sat down across from each other, and I watched as he took a small bottle from his coat pocket and poured it into his coffee.
"Does that make it taste better?" I asked, curious. He screwed the lid on and slipped it back into its place in one smooth motion. Like he had done it a hundred times.
"It's not about the taste, sweetie." Though he smiled, I noticed a darkness in his face then. Sad eyes, purple circles underneath. He's probably tired, I thought. Clammy skin, but most likely from wearing a coat inside. Makes sense. Trembling hands. Mom says coffee does that to people.
"Well, can I have something to make mine taste better?" I asked a little quieter.
His eyes softened amidst their crinkled corners, and Dad's disposition returned to an almost-normal. He motioned something to the barista behind me, and she brought a few packets of sugar and a small pitcher of milk. His hands shook a little as he turned the black abyss into a warm, inviting brown. I took a sip and forced a tiny, toothless smile. But my father was right; it's not about the taste. No matter what you put in coffee, it will always taste a little bitter.