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Fiction by
Elizabeth Thorpe

Incompatible by Nadia J. Mahfix
Incompatible by Nadia J. Mahfix

House of Tea 

The three of you have just turned off South Street toward Fabric Row, and already the city seems calmer, the streets lined with more trees. Nancy wants to stop in the House of Tea, so the three of you go in. You’ve been thinking about becoming a tea drinker. Your parents drink tea, cup after cup all day long. When you were a kid you had the whole collection of china animals that came in the boxes of Red Rose, some in doubles and triples.

The store has two rooms with painted wood floors. You and Allison go into the room that has the tea sets and diffusers and cups with lids. The Burmese restaurant had teacups with lids, and now you are on a mission to get some, too. When Nancy took the lid off her cup at the Burmese restaurant, it slid along the table and almost fell off. You would never put the tea lid on the table with the underside down, because you would know it would be wet with condensation, and you wouldn’t want to leave a wet ring on the table. But Nancy doesn’t think about things like that. The tea in the Burmese restaurant is jasmine tea that smells better than it tastes.

Your mother used to say, “I’ll make some tea to bring Dad home.” When you and your mother and brother walked in the door late after gymnastics classes in town, your dad would say, “I just put the tea on.”

You and Allison go into the main room, where there is a wooden bar at chest height. Black tins line the walls. There are eight shelves with twenty tins on each. Each tin has a gold emblem on the front that says “House of Tea”.

You used to be in a writing group that met at the house of a person named Zephyr. Zephyr made tea with flavors like anise or blackberry, and he served it in hand-thrown mugs with no handles. This is partly why you want to get into tea, because you remember Zephyr measuring the tea into the infuser, how evenly he poured it into the cups.

Nancy is asking the shopkeeper what’s in the Noel blend. Nancy is into tea shops, not necessarily into drinking tea. You’ve had tea at her house before, watery Earl Grey. Her apartment is full of thin flowered teacups with saucers, some of which she inherited from her grandmother. She has started a collection of tea towel souvenirs from the places she’s visited. She is considering a part-time job working at a tea shop on weekends, not because she needs the money but because she wants to meet people. You hate to think about how lonely your two best friends are. You hate to think about them coming home to empty apartments, the long Saturdays and Sundays waiting to be filled with errands and naps.

“It’s too complex to explain,” the shopkeeper tells Nancy, about the Noel blend. “You’ll just have to smell it.”

The shopkeeper is a very small woman, and later you will wonder how she managed to get the tea tins down from the highest shelves. You don’t remember seeing her struggle to reach them. Nancy smells the Noel blend. You and Allison smell it too. It doesn’t smell like cinnamon, like you expected. It smells like dried orange peels and maybe cloves, and maybe peppermint, but not too much. It is complex, and it is dark and mysterious and sort of ghostly, things you love about Christmas but can’t put exactly into words. It smells like that Wyeth painting Christmas Morning, with the snow melting around the old man’s body. But not the body, of course, just the feeling of Christmas ghosts, Christmases that have gone and gone and gone before.

Nancy nods at the woman and doesn’t say anything after she smells it. You and Allison thank the woman and keep looking up at all those tins of tea. You say,

“I’m a coffee drinker, but I’m thinking about getting into tea. Do you recommend anything?”

“Do you like the taste of coffee, or just the caffeine buzz?” the woman says. Her light blue eyes are spaced wide apart.

“I like the taste. I also like Chinese tea, and my boyfriend drinks green tea.”

“Well, the Chinese tea is a different end of the spectrum. If you like the taste of coffee you’ll like the black teas.” The woman pulls down canisters for you to smell. Allison smells them too.

“If you like the way tea smells, you’ll like the taste,” the woman says.

You like the way all of them smell. You wonder where Nancy is.

“My parents drink tea all day,” you say. “My dad’s British.”

The woman nods. “I drink tea as soon as I get up in the morning,” she says. “I make it in a pot on the stove. Never drink coffee, don’t like the taste.”

“I like jasmine tea, too,” you say.

“I have a great jasmine tea. It’s the only one I sell in two ounce packages.”

You smell the jasmine tea. It smells great. “I’ll take some of that,” you say. “How do you recommend I make it?”

“You don’t want to bother with any of these infusers. Just put the tea leaves right in the bottom of the cup. You only need three of the jasmine leaves. Let it brew for two minutes, then take the leaves out with a spoon. You can reuse the leaves twice, maybe three times if you have a good palate.”

It goes on. The woman talks about the merits of tea vs. coffee (coffee beans are ground, while tea leaves stay whole. The whole leaves impart a purer, more consistent flavor), about the steady caffeine dispersement tea gives, about the nutrients green tea provides. Then she tells you that she is a jockey, that she inherited the tea shop when her father died, that she ran ten miles that morning.

Nancy is sitting in an armchair behind you, writing in her notebook. This is a bad sign. You’ve only known Nancy to write in a notebook when she’s copying down a recipe at Allison’s house or when she’s mad. But you can’t think why she’s mad.

You buy four ounces of tea called After Snow Sprout, because you love the name. The three of you go out into the sunny day. Nancy isn’t speaking. You can’t figure it out, and don’t until much later.

It’s an extension of a long-running hurt. The tea lady spoke to you, and not to her. You have a partner, you have a job you like. You can make tea and somebody will come home.

“House of Tea” responded to a challenge to write in the second person. I think this was a story I’d been thinking about for a long time, because it came out all in one piece. I’m counting on my old friends (thank you for your inspiration) to understand my drawing on memory for the sake of fiction.

Readers might notice that I messed up the detail of the Wyeth painting. When I wrote the story, I had accidentally crossed two paintings, Christmas Morning and Spring, in my mind. I chose Christmas Morning for the right reason, but Spring was the image in my head. I decided to leave this mistake in the story, because I think it suits the character, who is still trying things on and not quite getting them right.