The Romantic Coffee Mug was a birthday gift from my then boyfriend, now husband, during the six-month window we dated as college sophomores. We didn’t take the easy option and stay a couple, opting instead to spend the next three years nursing an on-again-off-again thing while trying to stay friends. A year out of college, we basically got engaged in a shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment. I was offended when his mother asked if he could return the ring, but, given our history, she was probably being practical.
Her son, also pragmatic, thought a Nissan Stainless travel mug was a wonderful birthday present for his girlfriend. I hesitated when I opened the gift. “What is this?” I asked, transfixed by the heavy industrial cylinder with reinforced base, lid, and handle. “It looks like a lethal bank tube or a bludgeoning tool.”
“It’s a travel mug,” he said, his eyes smiling. “You drink a lot of coffee. Your plastic travel mug is junk. This is top of the line.”
I could see his point, but forever after I called my stainless steel travel weapon the Romantic Coffee Mug.
Flash forward to September 12, 2001. I was dropping my husband of twelve days off at work since I needed the car. I had spent the day before alternately glued to the television, lying on the scratchy plaid couch he’d bought as a bachelor, and running wet laundry to a makeshift line on the back deck. I don’t remember having the car, a Jeep Wrangler, on the eleventh—I felt stranded, isolated—but he knows his friend, another first lieutenant from his unit, drove him home from their office on Fort Campbell.
I hated the Jeep. I’d only been in it a few times when visiting from Chicago, but the hour from the Nashville airport and our jaunts about Clarksville were enough. The top was always down. The wind was brutal—loud and lashing—especially on the highway. Even with a ponytail, hair whipped my face. Or, if I fought to zip the canvas top and plastic windows into place, we roasted like kernels in a Jiffy-Pop pan. At least we could talk to each other then, if we yelled. I began downing Tylenol after every ride. Ironically, Jason had leased the Jeep because he thought it made a better “married” car than the Ford Expedition he’d bought with an early army paycheck. I hadn’t needed a car in Chicago, insisted I wouldn’t need one in Clarksville either. I would just ride my bike everywhere.
That never happened. To my naive surprise, a sprawling semi-rural town connected by highways was not nearly as bike-friendly as the city had been.
The morning of September eleventh was our second day home from the honeymoon, and Jason’s first day back at work. I thought I’d be setting up house until I found a job—a task for which I’d already created an Excel spreadsheet. I could make a nice dinner for when he got home—something outside his diet of Manwich sloppy joes, something that involved a fresh vegetable. I could run to the grocery after I unpacked a bit, get bread and milk, see what veggies looked good.
This pretend life dissolved by lunch. As the attacks unfolded on TV, I assumed Jason, a few miles away on post, was getting orders to deploy. He would come home, grab his gear, and go. So where did that leave me?
I needed the Jeep. There was a noon meeting the next day in the old part of town, about a thirty-minute drive. I needed the Jeep to get there. You couldn’t ride a bike. If nothing else happened that day, I needed to be at that twelve-step meeting. It was the only one in town.
When Jason’s friend dropped him off that night, late, I was waiting for him to say he was deploying. Yet tomorrow was just a normal work day. Not normal. But he’d be reporting to the office as usual. He wouldn’t need his rucksack. I told him I needed the car.
For this to happen, I would have to drop him off at work and then pick him up sometime later, whenever his day ended. I didn’t have my military ID card yet because that took forty-eight hours to process, and I hadn’t been at Fort Campbell that long. The lack of an ID would complicate the pickup, but we’d deal with that later. Drop-off should be okay, we assumed, because he would be in the car with me; his ID would get us both through the gate.
We were up a few hours later. It had been a restless night. I was convinced the intense, narrowing-whistle sound made by patrolling Apaches was actually bombs descending on our home. (They did not make the more familiar wop-wop-wop of helicopters in the movies.) I brewed a pot of coffee. I pounded several cups before pouring the rest into my Romantic Coffee Mug.
Now, standing in our meager newlywed kitchen, I screwed on its heavy-duty lid.
“You don’t want to do that,” Jason said.
“It’s tight,” I replied.
“No. You really don’t need all that coffee. It’s going to be a while before we get through the gate.”
“Whatever,” I said. “You’re going to ship off to God knows where and die. I’m drinking my fucking coffee.”
We buckled into the Jeep with Jason behind the wheel. Soon after we crossed from the residential neighborhoods into the back forty—acres of alternating woods, meadow, and manicured fields that served as the army’s training grounds—the Jeep slowed. A line of cars stretched along the straight, single-lane road, a gradual incline giving the impression they extended into eternity.
“What the—” I started.
“Security,” Jason said. “It’s going to be tight today. I bet they’re checking under the cars. Trunks. This is going to take a while.” He settled into his seat.
The cars were close enough that, with the top down, I could hear the people, their radios, on either side of us. I wished I could sleep, but I was too hot and windblown. Humidity dripped into the idling car.
We had enough to talk about, ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes.
The Jeep lurched methodically uphill.
Eventually, I had to pee.
“I have to pee,” I said.
“Yup,” Jason replied.
“Like, I can go maybe ten minutes, but then I need to pee.”
“I told you not to drink all that coffee.”
“I didn’t know it would take this long to get you in to work.”
We sat. We talked. We listened to the news.
“You can go in the woods,” he offered.
“I cannot go in the woods! Everyone in this line will see me go off and pee in the woods. And there’s probably snakes in there.”
“Why do I suck?”
“You don’t suck,” I crossed my legs tighter. “I really, really have to pee.”
Cars rolled before and behind us. Heat waves undulated off the asphalt. We were still so far from the gate. My eyes watered.
“Ohmygod, my bladder’s going to explode.”
Jason shook his head knowingly. “You’ll piss yourself before your bladder explodes. Your body won’t let it explode.”
I clutched the door handle and did deep breathing.
We listened to the news. We sat. We talked.
“Oh. My. God. It is going to explode.”
I winced in pain, bending over, but was rewarded with some crumpled Sonic napkins under the seat.
“Put the top up,” I said.
“Put. The. Top. Up.”
We were parked anyway, so Jason opened the driver door, nodded in greeting to the uniformed folks around us, and walked to the back of the Jeep. He unrolled the plastic and began zipping the roof into place.
When he got back in, I opened my door, unscrewed the Romantic Coffee Mug lid, and poured the remaining contents onto chunks of asphalt mixed with grass. I shut the door.
“Look away,” I said.
I slid down the seat, trying to give my bladder some breathing room. I undid the button on my shorts, my grateful belly occupying that space. I hoped my body could keep the pee in just a little longer.
“Don’t look,” I said.
“You don’t have to worry.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw him pressed against his plastic window.
I slid toward the floor and willed the cars behind to not discern what was happening, and if they did, that we would never, ever cross paths. I maneuvered my shorts and underwear away and positioned the Romantic Coffee Mug below me as I assumed a quasi-crouch position. Please be in the right spot. Please be in the right spot. Please be in the right spot.
As relief came, I sighed, “Please don’t look at me.”
“Oh, the romance is gone!” Jason laughed into his flimsy window. “Married less than two weeks and you’re pissing into a cup next to me.” His body shook with laughter. “Romantic Coffee Mug indeed!”
I began to worry the Nissan Stainless didn’t have enough capacity for all my bladder had to unload. I grabbed the sturdy lid with my free hand and screwed it on past its natural click. I used the napkins to clean as best I could.
“Better?” Jason asks, wiping tears from his eyes. The Jeep’s back in gear as we lurch up the hill; I rock back into the seat, hoisting my shorts into place.
I clutch the mug between my feet.
“There’s more,” I say, buckling. “But at least I won’t explode or pee myself now.”
The Jeep advances slowly. We still can’t see the entry gate.
“I can’t believe I just did that,” I say, eyes closed. “Sorry.”
A moment, a few scraggly trees pass.
“No,” Jason says. “You don’t need to be sorry for anything.”
The radio changed from news to country music at some point. We listened to a few songs. I didn’t make fun of them.
“I’m the one who should be sorry,” he says, gripping the wheel.
I’m hungry and can feel bags under my eyes. My face stings from wind and dirt, and I probably smell of sweat and piss. I’m holding a jar of pee between my feet. I am angry and afraid and without a proper ID. Sixty-two hours earlier, we were in the Caribbean on our honeymoon. I wore a straw hat. He wore sandals.
“No. Though that’s probably a good married rule.” I smile. “No, you didn’t do anything either.”
Another song plays.
“Well, the Romantic Coffee Mug had a good run, at least,” Jason says.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Well, you’re not going to drink out of it now, are you?”
“Ew. Gross. No,” I say. “I can clean it, though. Pee’s mostly ammonia.”
“Why? Why would you keep it if you’ll never use it?”
“I can use it to hold pens,” I say. “The Romantic Coffee Mug is stronger than pee. It has more than one life.”