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Tea Ceremony
  • February 21, 2014 : 00:02
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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.”

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read more: entertainment, fiction, issue march 2014

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