‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ by ZZ Packer

“Sharp episodic phases of people” is a good description of this beautiful tale, the title story in ZZ Packer’s only collection to date, and which I came to through a 2018 episode of Backlisted in which Nikesh Shukla had chosen it as the main book. All eight stories are knockouts, but this one stayed with me because it manages the seamless movement from humour to pathos: one of the hardest literary transitions of all. Dina is a black A-student from Baltimore in her first year at Yale. A flip remark during an orientation game gains her a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling, she withdraws into her room, until Heidi, a white girl “dressed like an aspiring plumber” ends up sobbing at her door. Their friendship crackles with repartee and slowly deepens: they sleep together but don’t have sex. In the stories central set-piece, they strip and hose one another down in the dish room at the college dining hall they have just cleaned. Dina recognises her love for Heidi in that moment: “I sprayed her and sprayed her, and she turned over and over like a large, beautiful dolphin, lolling about in the sun”. This briefly promises to dissolve all the tensions of race, class, sexual orientation and body-consciousness that threaten them, but we know it can’t last. It isn’t until near the end of the story, when Heidi has come out as queer and Dina has let her down, that we see where Packer is taking us. Dina imagines them meeting again and consoles herself with the thought that: “In that future time… your words can always be rewound and erased, rewritten and revised.” Except they can’t, save in stories, of course. Which is why we write them and why we read them. I really hope ZZ Packer writes more.

First published in The New Yorker, June 11 2000, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead Books, 2003

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