Tea Ceremony

By Stuart Dybek Illustration by Nomoco

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The tentative first snow has become a ticking sleet that despite its bone-chill looks molten in the streetlights. Their shoes—his high-tops, her purple suede boots—are soaked from the quest on which he’s led them, up one slushy block and down another, since they were asked to leave the movie theater.

“Are we lost yet?” Gwen asks.

“I swear there’s this neat coffeehouse with a woodstove around here,” Jack says. “I found it by smell last time.”

“If it’s someplace you used to go with Hailey, let’s forget it. Being there would feel creepy to me,” Gwen says.

“You think I’d drag us around freezing because I’m looking for a place I’d been to with someone else?”

“You’re right, you wouldn’t want to violate the sacred memory.”

“Jeez, you’re in a shitty mood. If you think it’s my fault getting us kicked out, I apologize.”

“I was in a great mood. What’s more romantic than getting 86ed for public lewdness and stepping into the first snow of the year? I loved walking in it together. Who drew a snow heart on the window of a car, and who walked away before we could write in our initials?”

“Sorry, I was freezing. I’m not dressed for this. I needed to keep moving,” Jack says. “Look, there’s something open. We’re saved.”

The restaurant’s windows are steamed opaque. Inside, an illegible sign diffuses pink neon across the slick plate-glass window and the Formica counter. There’s a scorched, greasy griddle smell. The few customers at the counter, all men, eat wearing their coats. Beyond the counter are four empty Formica tables.

“I want to go on record that I have never been in this place before,” Jack says. “Nor will I ever be in this place again with anyone but you.”

“You say that now.”

“I’d never be able to find this place again if I wanted to.”

“How about by smell?”

They sit at the table farthest from the counter and wedge their chairs together to study the plastic menu. Gwen opens her Goodwill fur coat and Jack unbuttons his Levi’s jacket, but like the people at the counter, they keep their coats on. An overweight waitress in a food-stained white uniform, her face ruddy with the broken capillaries of a drinker, shuffles over on swollen legs to take their order. The waitress waits, regarding them through eyes outlined in tarry mascara. Sandra is stitched in red on her uniform above the droop of her considerable bosom.

“You kids need more time?”

“I think I’ll have hot tea instead of coffee,” Gwen tells Jack. “Can I just get a tea?” she asks the waitress.

“Sure can, hon,” Sandra says.

“Tea sounds right for the weather,” Jack says. “This may be another first. I don’t think I ever ordered tea in a restaurant.”

“What about a Chinese restaurant?” Gwen asks.

“That doesn’t count,” Jack says. “You don’t order. It just comes.”

“So, two teas?” the waitress asks.

“Two hot teas.”

“That it? Nothing to eat?”

“Crumpets, maybe,” Jack says. “Do you have crumpets?”

The waitress isn’t amused.

“Just the tea, please,” Gwen tells her.

“You got it, hon,” the waitress says and writes the order down on her pad. “You want cream or lemon?”

“Lemon,” Gwen says. “I’d love some lemon.”

“Lemon for me too,” Jack says.

The waitress writes it down.

“How about some honey?” the waitress asks her. “We got these little breakfast honeys for toast I could bring you.”

“Thank you so much,” Gwen says, smiling at Sandra, “just lemon’s fine.”

“She an old friend of yours, hon, a long-lost aunt or maybe fairy godmother?” Jack asks after the waitress shuffles off.

“She’s just being nice. She seems lonely. She’s probably the only woman in here most of the time. Maybe I remind her of someone.”

“Remind her of who?”

“How should I know? A daughter she never had. Or one she did, a love child who ran away from home and every time the door here opens Sandra thinks it might be her prodigal finally coming back.”

“That would explain why she doesn’t consider me a worthy escort. You notice the evil eye I was getting.”

“Maybe she could see I’d been crying. Can you tell?”

“You look like you just came in from the cold.”

Gwen polishes a teaspoon with a paper napkin and examines her reflection in the concave finish. “My eyes are puffy,” she says.

Jack takes the spoon from her, brings it to his lips as if it’s brimming with steaming soup and sips. “I even love the taste of your reflection,” he says, dropping his voice. “I could lick it off mirrors.”

“A little over-the-top but better. You’re making a comeback,” Gwen says and takes his hand and slides it into the pocket of her fur coat. The pocket has a hole in it and Jack can reach through the pocket and then through the torn lining of the coat to brush his fingers along Gwen’s right breast.

“Oh-oh,” Jack says, “this is how it started at the movie.”

“God, I was so close too,” she says. “I blame it on that old, atmospheric theater and its velvet seats and winking starry sky. Like we’d entered a time machine to get there, the way the movies used to be. I always envied those generations that grew up making out at drive-ins instead of ordering Netflix. I wanted us to come together while Fred and Ginger were dancing.”

“Foreplay interruptus,” Jack says. “We’re both probably suffering from post-traumatic sex disruption. No wonder you got upset about a heart on a car window.”

“It wasn’t just a car. It was a vintage Jaguar. That was the point—a beautiful, sleek green Jag inscribed with a heart. Tomorrow morning some lonely venture capitalist is going to come out and find that heart on his car and see only my initials in it ’cause you were freezing and couldn’t wait around. He’ll think it was a message for him and inscribe his initials where yours were supposed to be, and then he’ll slowly cruise through the city, hoping for GL, whoever she is, to wave as he goes by.”

Sandra brings a plastic tray to their table. Arranged on the tray are two small metal pots filled with steaming water and two thick, white, chipped cups on matching chipped saucers. There are two Salada tea packets on a separate plate, two spoons and a little white bowl of lemon wedges. She carefully transfers each item to their table, setting a cup, pot and spoon before each of them, and the bowl of lemon wedges in the middle. She opens each tea packet and places a tea bag in each cup and then from her apron pocket produces two small containers of honey.

“Anything more I can get you?” Sandra asks.

“This is wonderful,” Gwen says. “I wasn’t expecting a tea ceremony when I ordered.”

Sandra smiles, pleased. “It’s just tea bags,” she says. “My mother really knew how to brew tea—real loose tea from India in a little silver ball with a chain. She’d read the leaves.”

“Really!” Gwen says. “I always wanted to see someone do that. My mother told me my nonna Marie used to read the cards. Not tarot, just regular playing cards. The family story is that it was the cards that told my grandmother her future was in America.”

“I read the cards,” Sandra says. “It’s in my family. All the women can do it. My sister Irene can read eggs. Don’t laugh,” she says to Jack. “It’s true. I read palms.”

“Who taught you,” Gwen asks, “or did you just, like, know how?”

“My mother taught me. She taught me what I already knew but didn’t have the confidence yet to do. I can show you,” Sandra says and sits down at their table. She extends her hand toward Gwen, and Gwen releases Jack’s hand in the pocket of her fur coat and gives her hand to Sandra.

“It’s amazing what we’re born knowing if someone just shows us,” Gwen says.

“Yeah, and amazing what we think we know when what we know is nothing,” Sandra says. “You have a warm, lovely hand, hon.” She turns Gwen’s hand palm up and lightly traces the lines with her crooked forefinger, studying them and then looking up at Gwen, who meets Sandra’s eyes and smiles.

But Sandra doesn’t smile back.

“You’re laughing on the outside, but your heart is crying,” Sandra says.

Jack feels caught off guard. He notices Gwen flinch and instinctively draw back, but Sandra grips her wrist. Gwen closes her hand and Sandra gently pries it back open and studies it again. “You two, you’re the wrong chemicals to mix,” she says and shakes her head disapprovingly.

“Pardon?” Gwen says.

“Not a good fit, no balance. Don’t go near the ledge together,” Sandra says and pushes herself up as if she’s suddenly weary, then shuffles away.

“Mondo weirdo,” Jack says. “There goes her tip. I think we just experienced the Gypsy tea ceremony. That line about crying in your heart sounds like it comes out of Fortune-Telling for Dummies.”

He pours hot water over his tea bag; the water in the cup turns tannic.

“My great-aunt Lucile used to look like she was reading tea bags,” he tells Gwen. “She’d put hot tea bags on her eyes when she had a migraine. She could tell the future from the spatters of bacon fat too, and forecast winners at the track from feeling the fuzz on a raspberry.”

He sips his tea. The water that appeared to be hot is tepid.

Gwen reaches for the glass shaker of sugar that’s beside the napkin dispenser along with a squeeze bottle of mustard and a bottle of ketchup missing its cap.

“Did you and your friends ever fill the sugar container with salt when you were in high school?” Jack asks.

“What a callow, guy thing to do,” Gwen says. She stops before pouring sugar in her cup and instead touches the tip of her index finger to the sugar spout and then extends the sugary finger toward Jack. “Taste. Some gang of knuckleheads like your high school homeys might have been messing around here.”

“It’s sweet,” Jack says. He licks the grains from her fingertips, then spreads her middle and forefinger as if spreading her legs and runs his tongue down the side of her forefinger to the webbing and laps her there. She takes his hand, sprinkles sugar on his forefinger, guides it to her lips and sucks it. He closes his eyes.

“Did you like it in the movie theater?” Gwen asks.

“Loved it. I’m sorry we got kicked out into the cold before we ever saw if while I was getting a blow job Fred at least gets to kiss Ginger.”

“What if entering that old theater was going back in the past, and because we got kicked out instead of staying until it was over and returning to the present, we got kicked out into the past? I mean, look at this place.” Gwen releases his hand and bobs her tea bag in the cup. The string slips from the staple that attaches the bag to the Salada label, and she spoons the tea bag out and presses it to her eye. “Oooh, that feels good. Great-aunt Lucy was onto something.” Gwen places the tea bag on her saucer and then sprinkles sugar on the lemon wedges in the bowl. “I like sour tastes. I used to suck lemons even when I was a little kid. My friends all thought I was crazy. I like how clean they make my mouth feel.” She sucks at a lemon wedge and then inserts the wedge into her mouth and retracts her lips, giving Jack a lemon-peel smile.

He peels open a honey, dabs out a fingertip of honey, outlines her lips and kisses her. She still has the lemon wedge in her mouth and it blocks the probing of his tongue. Her kiss tastes of lemon oil. He dabs his forefinger in the honey again and then slips his hand beneath the table and carefully slides it between the folds of her fur coat and up under her heathery woolen skirt. When he reaches her thighs, her legs part. She looks at him and narrows her eyes. There’s the tink of her spoon as her right hand absently stirs her tea. The lemon peel smiles at him from between her lips. The radiant warmth of her body defies the grains of ice slashing through the dark trees that line the curb, the sleet ticking against the pinkish plate-glass window and pocking the film of snow on the windshields of parked cars. No way would that heart on the Jag survive until morning. She slouches down in her chair, pressing his sticky fingertip against her panties and then past the elastic so that the honey mixes with her slickness. They may have entered the past, but for this moment there’s only the present between them.

From behind the counter, Sandra locks them in a nonstop stare.

With his free hand, Jack raises his teacup to his lips. Gwen’s eyes are closed, she’s breathing heavier, her nostrils flared and her mouth parted, revealing lemon yellow. When she slides toward his finger so that it enters deeper, he whispers, “Sweetheart, you have to at least make like you’re sipping your tea.”


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