by David Licata

The Red Mug

The mug wasn’t special in anyway, not when I first bought it. It was just a red ceramic cylinder with a handle collecting dust in a Court Street thrift store. I didn’t even buy it for me. I bought it to replace a white mug I broke that belonged to the man whose apartment I was subletting. The red mug was manufactured in Italy and that sold me on it, having just spent my junior year in Florence.

It upset me, breaking that white mug because I knew that an object like a mug could be a special thing. I have always attributed magical powers to select inanimate objects: a ring that brought me good luck, a blouse that improved exam scores, a wooden spoon that made tomato sauce taste better. I didn’t know how Jay Moore, the man I was subletting from, felt about the white mug, but it was not unreasonable to think it was special to him. I was in touch with Jay here and there about the apartment, but I didn’t tell him that I broke his mug.

I became very attached to the red mug. It became my coffee mug—I was big into coffee then—and soon it showed me its special powers. Wrapping my hands around it when it was full of a hot beverage comforted me. Staring at it—its vibrancy contrasted with Jay’s earthtone décor—it popped out from its surroundings and therefore made me see what surrounded it anew. During this newlywed period with the red mug I discovered that Warhol collected red FiestaWare and that the red glazes used on them in their early years contained uranium oxide, hence the vibrancy of the red, and I wondered if my mug was radioactive, if its chemical composition was responsible for its special powers. I was young and immortal and didn’t care a whit about its potential toxicity. I smoked then, too.

            I photographed and drew this mug many times and from many different perspectives. It posed near bowls, vases, fruit, flowers, newspapers, books, lamps, computers, French press coffee pots. One of my senior projects was an ad for an island vacation. My ad incorporated, among other things, a calendar, but instead of the dates being in a precise grid, they were in irregular rings left by a coffee mug. This idea came to me courtesy of the red mug and the rings it left on my papers. This mock ad was the highlight of my portfolio for many years and everyone who saw it commented on it or at least smiled. The red mug had become the closest thing I had to a muse.

            I could not bare the thought of life without it. Maybe you think I’m being overly dramatic, but when it came time to leave Jay’s place, and to fess up to breaking his mug, I went out and bought yet another mug, replacing what was to be the replacement. I was not going to get another red mug, though; I thought that would somehow be an insult to my red mug. So I bought a navy one by the same manufacturer. It turned out Jay had no attachment to his mug but you just never know with these things.

            I brought the red mug to my first real job. It sat on my desk and helped me wake up in the morning after being out too late the night before, helped me perk up in the afternoon when I would drift into a post-lunch fade, helped me keep going in the evenings when we were on deadline. Everyone at work admired the mug at one point or another.

When I was bored out of my mind at meetings, the mug displayed another magic power. Staring at it would lead me to think about the year I spent in Florence and in no time at all I’d be with Paolo, the most beautiful boyfriend I ever had and the first man besides my father and brothers that I truly loved. I would remember a picnic in the amphitheater in Fiesole or riding fearlessly on the back of his Vespa through the ancient streets, my arms around his waist. I would relive our conversations and how I said to him in Italian, “I love you so much I can barely breathe.”

            After a year the red mug and I left that job for greener pastures. I also left Jay’s place and moved into a large two-bedroom in Cobble Hill with Diane and Liz, college friends. These were heady times, full of youthful energy, cocaine and dancing. Oh to be in your mid 20s in New York City at that time.

            Diane, Liz, the red mug and I had a great time at that apartment. The red mug branched out a little: no longer was it just for coffee. I started drinking tea more and more and so it accommodated that. Vodka tonics, too, in the summer.

            I was the only one allowed to drink from the red mug, this was understood, and later, after Liz chipped its lip while washing it, I was the only one allowed to touch it. I was upset, but played it down because her intentions were good and she didn’t know the depth of my feeling for the mug. Still, Liz sensed something, because she went out and bought a replacement, the same manufacturer, the same style, the same color. But of course it wasn’t the same. I accepted it, graciously I think, and occasionally used that mug¾and everyone and anyone was free to use it¾but it did not replace the original. When Liz moved out, I insisted she take it, as a momento.

            The red mug didn’t lose any of its magic because of the chip. In fact, the opposite happened. Sometime during my stewardship of the mug it started crazing, and this along with the chip gave it character, a kind of gravitas.

            We moved to a place of our own, the red mug and I, a dumpy, tiny studio on the Lower East Side. I started getting more freelance work, which meant I worked more from home. The 15 by 25 foot space meant less stuff in the apartment and this coincided with a minimalist, Japanese aesthetic I was embracing. The mug fit perfectly in this space and it became more prominent. It became an objet always on display as much as a drinking vessel. Wherever it was in the room, whatever it rested on—desk, nightstand, floor—it created a perfectly balanced visual composition. We were happy on the Lower East Side, the mug and I.

            We didn’t have many parties in that apartment, but we did have gentleman callers, and one of those callers was Stephen. We fell in love. We decided to move in together.

            I had a year on my lease yet so I decided to sublet my place to a friend of Diane’s I had met a few times, Andrew, an actor-writer-musician-filmmaker-model-waiter. I liked and trusted Andrew and I think we could have been lifelong friends but we were headed in different directions.

            When I packed up my stuff I decided at the last minute to leave the red mug behind. It had wandered a little bit with me and found its home in this little apartment. It had served me so well for years, but I felt it was telling me that it was time it gave its gift to someone else, and Andrew was worthy of it. The day I moved out, the red mug rested on the formica counter, on top of a note written in a hand that did not look like mine:

Dear Andrew,

Though Sarah loved me more than she ever loved any other inanimate object, we both decided that my place was here, in this apartment, with you. I hope I can bring you as much joy, comfort, and inspiration as I did to her.


The Red Mug


            I gave up the lease on the apartment and Andrew moved to Berkeley. I didn’t check in on the apartment, so I don’t know if he took the mug with him or left it there for the next tenant or gave it to a worthy friend or sold it during his moving sale.

            Over the course of the next eleven-plus years I married Stephen, Stephen and I had Stephen, Jr., we moved to the suburbs of New Jersey, I started my own business, which once thrived and is now failing, and Stephen was murdered. After his murder the red mug came to mind once in a while—when I thought of Andrew or that apartment—and when it did, it usually made me smile, or rather move my mouth in a way that approached a smile. Sometimes though the thought of it brought a painful nostalgia for the more innocent years when the mug and I shared a common space. I suppose it’s the nature of innocence that it be taken for granted and the nature of experience that it makes us want to return to innocencd.

            And now I find myself in the everyday dinnerware section in a Bed, Bath & Beyond in a mall in Paramus, New Jersey with Stephen, Jr., 19 months after my husband’s murder. Carly Simon’s voice drifts down from the ceiling, singing about the way she heard things should be. “Can I help you with anything?” a sales associate asks and I say, “No thank you,” paralyzed in front of a display of the same model mugs, in their various hues, black, navy, brown, green, yellow, and, of course, red—each shelf containing a color. The young man in the name tag backs away when he sees I’m crying and I can’t blame him; no one wants to be close to grief. I begin to quake. Stephen, Jr. says, “Mom!” I am weeping and I am embarassing him again but for the life of me I can’t stop. 

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