Short Story Month, Day 1: "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere"
As promised, this month, The Missouri Review is celebrating the short story by writing a daily post about our favorite short stories. There is, to my knowledge, no official tally on how many short stories have ever been published, let alone written, but I imagine the number is quite large, the kind of number that would make Carl Sagan smile, and so choosing the first one, the jumping off point seems like a gargantuan task. Choosing the Best is an impossible task anyway but we certainly want to kick things off with a terrific one. The criteria is not really coherent in my mind. Instead, I think I’ll just discover some sort of criteria by writing about our first selection: “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by ZZ Packer.
This is not the first story I read by Packer. The first story I read by her, another gem, was “Every Tongue Shall Confess” and after hearing that this was one of the rare story collections that actually held up as a book, not just a bunch of stories by one author, I went out and snagged a copy and tore through the whole thing.
Like all great short stories, finishing “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” made me want to instantly flip back to the beginning and read it again. The story is about Dina, a black woman from Baltimore who is beginning her freshman year at Yale. She’s intelligent, observant, guarded, wry, and protective, all of which Packer deftly demonstrates in the first scene. And, of course, the first word of the story, orientation, takes on new meaning when Dina meets Heidi, the girl she falls in love with and whose heart she ultimately breaks.
This story is about so many things—race, sexuality, class, identity—and that’s just the obvious things. My favorite moment, however, might be when Dina’s “otherness”, her intelligence, detaches her from her mother in her dreams in such a way that they both recognize will be permanent:
I’d come home from a school trip to an aquarium, and I was explaining the difference between baleen and sperm whales according to the size of their heads, the range of their habitats, their feeding patterns.
I awoke remembering the expression on her face after I’d finished my dizzying whale lecture. She looked like a tourist who’d asked for directions to a place she thought was simple enough to get to only to hear a series of hypothetical turns, alleys, one-way streets. Her response was to nod politely at the perilous elaborateness of it all; to nod and save herself from the knowledge that she would never be able to get where she wanted to go.
Each scene of the story has this same devastating effect of peeling back more layers of Dina, exposing her to the reader and, oddly, making us feel more protective of her. I won’t give away the ending of the story, which Packer nails, but it’s just as memorable as that excerpt.
ZZ Packer’s debut short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was published in 2003. Snag a copy from Powell’s here.