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Tea Ceremony
  • February 21, 2014 : 00:02
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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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read more: entertainment, fiction, issue march 2014

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