“Don’t even know why I read my e-mail…” I muttered into the driving cold.
I pushed open the door to the Chemistry building and entered the lobby. A few stray snowflakes rushed past me, buffeted by the wind outside, before the door slammed shut.
Much of my college years was being wasted in that building, a consequence of choosing Chemistry as my major. Though one would think that chemists would be the life of the party (drugs), the truth is that we have so much schoolwork to do that we end up not going to the parties in the first place.
The message from Professor Nabokov had been short:
Come to C902, I’ve made the most extraordinary discovery! Hurry!
…signed simply with an N.
Rooms in the 900 block were set aside for professors’ personal research. The university felt it was best to allow them to fill their downtime with on-campus academic pursuits. Especially since Prof. LaPorte had developed that new super glue in his basement. That is, former Prof. LaPorte.
The block was almost spooky in its silence. I’d never been there before, having neither occasion nor desire to do so. The doors were flanked by balding corkboards, some peppered with yellowing newspaper clippings held in place by rusty pushpins.
The trip up the stairs had been mildly harrowing, but the doors and floor here all felt appropriately sturdy, so my heart rate was slowly returning to baseline.
902, 902… Ah.
The room number was worn to illegibility, but it was between 904 and 900. Still, I knocked.
After several seconds with no response, I tried to peer through the frosted glass window of the door. There were vague, round-edged shadows of the shapes inside, but nothing appeared to be moving.
I stepped back and thought for a moment. I didn’t want to barge in, but I had been invited… Fortune favors the bold, though, so I grabbed the doorknob and boldly went in.
I was slammed by a wave of heat and a disorienting cloud of steam.
“Hot!” I gasped reflexively.
I dropped my schoolbag onto the carpet and shed my thick winter coat. Steam was still pouring into the hallway, so I shut the door behind me. Ah, the glass wasn’t frosted; it was clouded by steam.
As I turned back around, I noticed for the first time the strong smell of coffee. I waved away some steam and found a long table, on which was simmering a battalion of Erlenmeyer flasks, each perched on a flaming Bunsen burner. I chose one at random and peered inside. It was definitely brown-ish, and it definitely smelled of coffee. But what it was doing here, I had no id–
“Finally!” a voice cried from deeper into the room.
“Prof. Nabokov?” I answered.
Professor Nabokov emerged from a cloud of steam, clutching a mug. “Finally you come,” he said, with only a trace of a Russian accent. “I have been waiting already for 20 minutes!”
“Well, I live off-campus…”
“But did I not tell you to hurry?”
As he gestured to punctuate his question, a small amount of liquid sloshed over the side of his mug. Brown. Hot.
“Are you drinking this coffee?” I asked, pointing at the flasks.
He turned and followed my finger. “No, not that coffee. That’s not ready yet. I’m drinking that coffee.” He hooked a thumb into the steamy distance. “My… fifth cup in the last hour.”
Observing him more carefully, I could believe it. His hands were jittery, and his face was flushed. Depending on his temperature, he was either drunk or overcaffeinated. Given his surroundings, I was more likely to believe the latter.
“Which is the point,” he continued. “First-stage caffeine intoxication.”
“I think you should sit down, Professor,” I said. I started looking around for a chair. Damn this steam!
“No, no!” Prof. Nabokov shouted suddenly, sloshing more coffee onto the carpet. He seemed not to care.
I took a step back and held up my hands (whoa) in a gesture of surrender.
“Er, no, sorry,” he apologized. “It’s the jitters; I don’t mean to yell. But I’ll be fine. Really. Here, come with me.”
He disappeared into the steam. Shrugging, I gritted my teeth and followed.
Professors were all but expected to be a little crazy. I’d just never experienced it first-hand. As long as the evening didn’t end with lightning and cries of “It’s alive!” I was probably ready for this.
But the reality was surprisingly mundane. Prof. Nabokov was sitting at a small, low table surrounded by folding chairs. It was well lit, and two mugs of coffee were set in front of him. One black, one white.
“Sit, sit!” he said.
“Do you know what I do here?” he suddenly asked, pointing at my face.
I scratched my head idly. “You’re a professor. A chemistry professor.”
“No. Well, yes. That is what I do at the university. But do you know what I do here? In this room?”
“My title, according to my contract with the university, is Professor of Coffee Sciences. And that’s what I do here.” He beamed. “Coffee Science!”
“Is that a thing?” I asked. “I mean, a thing that’s real?”
His face fell. “Why wouldn’t it be? You can do science to anything.”
“And do you have any idea how important coffee is to society? Coffee changed the world! Back before modern sanitation and clean drinking water, more beer was drunk than water. Weak beer, but still. So many people went around in a state of numb intoxication all day long. But along comes coffee! It has caffeine, which sharpens the mind! And because it’s boiled, there’s no need to worry about nasty microbes.
“Suddenly, people are sitting around in coffeehouses with fully clear minds! Ideas are exchanged! Plans are hatched! Coffee was directly responsible for bringing about the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. It’s one of the most important beverages in the world. And much better for you than that damned Coca-Cola.”
“Tea, as well,” I added.
He laughed. Just two short, quick bursts. “Yes, but we are in America. Who here drinks tea?”
“I drink tea, sir, and I am offended at your unpatriotic allegations,” I didn’t say.
Instead, I shrugged and mumbled something noncommittal.
He ignored my mumblings and clapped his hands once. “So. Here I have two mugs. This one…” He shakily gestured to the left (black) mug. “…filled with ordinary coffee, and this one…” Now the right (white). “…with something else entirely. No, wait. Not entirely. It’s still coffee, but it’s certainly not ordinary.”
He seemed to change gears quickly. “I’m shaking a lot.”
“It’s the caffeine,” I responded.
“Aha!” he shouted in triumph. “Good. Now. Who drinks caffeinated coffee?”
“Everyone,” I responded, this time more carefully.
He gestured for me to go on.
“People don’t–generally–like the flavor of decaffeinated coffee. Also, it’s more expensive because removing the caffeine is itself an expensive process. So people end up paying more for an inferior product.”
Professor Nabokov shook his head. “Which never made sense to me.”
“But don’t you use a Mac?” I joked.
He sputtered. “What? But–that’s not… Now is not the time for another of those conversations. God. Anyway.”
“Caffeine,” I prompted.
“Right. Expensive to remove.” Throat clear. “So what happens is that people who like coffee end up drinking it too late in the day. Then they stay up late, and they don’t sleep well, and they feel tired in the morning, so they drink more coffee… And the vicious cycle continues.”
“And there’s… something in the white mug that will stop that cycle?”
He stopped and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then asked, “Do you remember Prof. LaPorte?”
“Former Prof. LaPorte,” I corrected.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” He drummed his fingers (nervous habit) on the table. “What I have here is the end to that cycle, yes. It’s coffee that contains… Well, it contains anti-caffeine. It’s the antidote to the effects that caffeine has on the nervous system. Watch.”
He picked up the white mug, lifted it to his lips, and drained it.
I watched as his flushing went away, right before my eyes. As though it was melting away. He held out a hand, and it wasn’t shaking at all.
“Amazing…” I breathed.
“I definitely thought so, the first time I tried it. There’s a mint to be made here, but I can’t do it, you see. Because I would be making it here. But if it wasn’t me who did it… If it was a student who lived off-campus…”
I laughed. “I think I see what you’re driving at. It… sounds like an interesting plan to me. I accept, tentatively. But I want to know how it works. You can’t leave me in the dark about this.”
“Great!” he exclaimed. “That’s wonderful. Fantastic. Perfect.” He clapped his hands once, again. “So. Yes, we should go over all of it. Do you have the time to do it now? This… could be a late night.”
“Well, good thing we have so much coffee,” I said jokingly. “But before we start, I’d love to try some.”
“Some of the anti-caffeinated coffee.”
“Oh, right. Of course. How silly of me.” He reached into the steam and pulled out a flask filled with brown liquid, which he poured into the white mug.
I grabbed it and took a large sip. “Wow,” I said. “It does taste just like regular coffee. Wait, are you sure it isn’t?”
He waved the thought off. “I brew the regular in beakers.”
“Clever,” I responded. “Well, it really does tas’like reg’l’r c’f… Uh…”
Prof. Nabokov looked concerned. “What is it?”
“Kinda… slurry.” I slumped in my chair.
“Чёрт побери!” he swore. “How much caffeine have you had today?”
“None. Issa w’kend.”
“Oh, dear. I made the same mistake the first time I tried it. See, it works on your nervous system whether you’ve actually had any caffeine or not. I was hoping that we could work out a fix for that together.”
“Am I… Am I…” I tried to panic, but couldn’t. The edges of my vision started going black. “Am I gun’die?”
“No, no, no. Not at all.” He sighed. “What do you weigh? 180 pounds? Well, then I’ll see you in 36 hours when you wake up.”
As the last light faded, Prof. Nabokov tucked a blanket over me and waved.
“Sweet dreams,” he said cheerfully.