Later that evening, they sat alone in their apartment, wondering if they had made the right decision. Sylvie couldn’t stand the silence. She stood and walked the five feet from her dining room table into the kitchen where she filled the tea kettle before turning her front burner on high. The sound of the metal kettle hitting the metal coils echoed into the night. Her husband, Gerald, sat, shoulders slumped, in his wooden chair. His eyes were closed. When she looked at him, her heart broke. The kettle began to whistle and she added the hot water to the loose leaves in their blue tea pot. The cups, tiny and ceramic with little blue birds painted, flying, flying, flying, rattled in their matching saucers. They clattered onto their dining room table.
Sylvie began rubbing at a spot of imaginary dirt. They sat in uncomfortable silence for twenty long minutes—Gerald’s even breathing, the sound of Sylvie’s finger rubbing, rubbing, rubbing. She cleared her throat, “Cream!” Her chair scraped on the white linoleum as she stood and headed to the fridge. She had half a pint of cream left over from the creme brulee she made on Friday night. She poured it into a little white, cream dish and brought it to Gerald who grunted his thanks. Sylvie scooped two teaspoons of sugar into her cup and watched with pleasure as the white crystals dissolved. She added a hint of cream, watching as the black liquid turned dark brown then soft beige. She clinked her spoon against the cup and she tapped it on the edge three times before taking a sip.
The tea leaves were stale. She grimaced.
Sylvie looked around at the collection of cardboard boxes huddled in the kitchen like building blocks placed by a child. In the dim light of the kitchen, she could see hints of her own familiar writing on some of them: LIVING ROOM, BATHROOM, KITCHEN. She counted five boxes in the living room, knowing there were two more in the bedroom, one box was full of canned goods, tucked inside of the pantry, and one box in the spare bedroom which Gerald claimed as his office. Their whole life—-fifty years of marriage—reduced to less than ten cardboard boxes. Sylvie took a shuddering breath and reached for her tea. She swirled it and took one last gulp. Gerald raised his cup in a sad toast. The sound of the cups clinking echoed off their new two bedroom, one bath, apartment like a single word off the walls of an abandoned cave—failure.
Two weeks earlier Sylvie was taking tea with Sasha. Sasha lived in the apartment on the top floor of her downtown building. It was very swanky and Sylvie always felt fancy when visiting her friend of 30 years. Both of them were typists for Carson, Carson, and Daly which was the local law firm. Sasha became the third Mrs. Carson, and was promptly moved into the apartment she has now resided in for the past 25 years. Sylvie arrived in her taxi, handed the balding driver a $5 bill and stepped out slowly. She always liked the sound of her black heel hitting the pavement. Sylvie always wore heels for tea with Sasha.
A doorman, all tall, dark, and handsome, tipped his hat at her while holding open the glass gateway to Sasha’s world. The lobby was tiled and the walls are windows outlooking the rushing city. It was always kept immaculate, except for the fountain in the center, which was always filled with dirty coins exchanged for a wish by visitors and residents alike. Sylvie paused at the fountain that day and closed her eyes as a few water droplets, cool and inviting, fell on her rouged cheeks. She dug in her little black bag, the leather one that matched her little black dress, for a coin and grimaced at discovering only a quarter. Twenty five cents for one wish was hefty so she made three: please, let my husband find a way for us to keep the shop, please make Sasha not bring up the shop, and please let her remember cream for the tea today.
She smiled as she headed for the elevator and selected the top floor. The elevator played soft, classical music, and paused on the third floor. A young woman clutched the squirming hand of a little boy. His eyes were green. He was dressed in jeans and a button down shirt with a blazer-clearly the important young son of an important man. However, Sylvie hadn’t noticed a ring on the girl’s finger. But that wasn’t uncommon in this building. The woman began to step on when Sylvie said, “I’m going up.” The woman forced a grin and took a step back. The elevator doors closed gently.
Sylvie heaved a sigh. She caught her reflection in the shiny, metal doors and tried on a few faces. She forced her cheeks up into a toothy grin, raised her eyebrows, dropped them dramatically, and shifted into a dramatic, heavy lipped frown. Sylvie released her face and made a surprised expression-all open mouthed and big eyed. This expression hid her crows feet, her laugh lines, her whole proof of aging. She was leaning in to examine her face further when the doors suddenly opened. She had arrived.
Sasha’s big white door with the number 1 was at the end of a long, golden hallway. It was always closed. Sylvie paused and reapplied a layer of red lipstick before knocking gently three times. “Come in!” the silken voice of Sasha called out. Sylvie took a deep breath and took hold of the golden door knob. It twisted easily. When the door swung open, Sasha’s intense perfume filled Sylvie’s lungs. She stifled a cough with a greeting. Her friend was tucked in the kitchen and beckoned. Sylvie set her purse on the marble countertop and hugged Sasha who was clothed only in a silk robe, her dark black hair up in a sloppy bun. But it wasn’t sloppy. It was purposefully messy.
“How are you, daarrling?” inquired Sasha. Sylvie mutely nodded as Sasha grabbed her sterling silver tray with matching tea set and began dancing over to the living room. Sasha was always barefoot and her cream colored feet hadn’t aged a bit. Whereas Sylvie would never show guests her toes, Sasha’s were practically model worthy and perfectly polished. Her robe flowed softly around her as the tea was set on the glass coffee table. It was as Sylvie stepped into the pristine snow colored living room that she noticed the soft, pretentious classical music playing on the speakers. As always, she was still standing long after Sasha had found her seat.
Sasha was perched on the edge of her white leather couch like a cat, with one hand cradling her chin, the other clutching her tea cup.
“Sorry,” mumbled Sylvie as she rushed to an arm chair across from Sasha-white leather of course. Despite dressing up, she felt out of place in the golden light cast down from the chandelier above her head. She cleared her throat and leaned forward to reach the tea set. Her arms were shorter than Sasha’s so she awkwardly repositioned her butt on the chair to give her more length. Her fingers shook with nerves as she poured her cup and spilled in some sugar. No cream. She smiled and slowly sat back in the seat.
The first time they had done this, she had carelessly sloshed tea onto her decadent seat. She had dabbed and dabbed at the stain which seeped into the material quickly. It’s been fifteen years, but the stain still stood out like a stop sign.
“I’m good,” replied Sylvie quietly. She sipped her tea. It was a deep black with a touch of cinnamon and cloves.
“Gooodd,” cooed Sasha as she refilled her cup. “Ooohhh,” she gasped, “Dearest, I forgot the creaamm!” Her friend flew like the swan she was from her seat and rushed to the fridge. She pulled out a carton and thrust it down onto the tray. Everything shifted and jingled. It was like an earthquake struck.
“Not a worry. I like it just fine,” assured Sylvie as she took a deep sip to prove it. But Sasha’s ink colored eyes had gone big like a doe’s and they gazed expectantly at Sylvie. So she repositioned, repoured, and added cream this time. She hated to admit it, but it was better. She sniffled and nodded appreciatively.
“You are sooo welcome,” Sasha said as she dramatically tucked her robe underneath her perky little butt. Sasha didn’t always speak this way. Sylvie affectionately remembered when Sasha referred to their boss as a, “Fucking ignoramous who just assumes the most we know how to do is type and take coffee orders.” She supposedly got over that since she is now Mrs. Fucking Ignoramous. Sylvie had teased her friend to bits when she announced her engagement. The joke seems to have gone sour, now. “And how is,” Sasha paused and gazed at the ceiling, “Mmm, Gerald?”
“You know his name, Sash,” replied Sylvie bitterly. Perhaps, she didn’t. Perhaps, it was possible for a woman like Sasha to share a man’s bed and not know his name. “He’s doing well. We’re,” Sylvie dropped off and seriously considered not sharing this detail with her friend, “Considering selling the shop.” The words rush out of her like a tsunami.
“Ooohh? Whyyy?” Sasha dramatically furrowed her brows to show concern.
“We’ve gotten quite a good offer. And you know, we’re thinking it might just be time. We’re exhausted. We’ve been in this business for decades,” replied Sylvie. She tried to keep it nonchalant and cover up the crack in her voice with the tea.
“Good offer?” inquired Sasha.
“Yes,” Sylvie nodded. Hadn’t she just said it was a good offer? She felt the color rising in her cheeks and cleared her throat. She knew better than to name a number—not with Sasha. She’d simply insist it wasn’t enough. Which Gerald would disagree with. Which would lead to a fight. And no tea parties 'til Christmas. Which is when a large, red box with a green bow would appear on their doorstep.
“Want Tommy to look at it for youuu?” asked Sasha.
This was a question that Sylvie was prepared for, “That isn’t necessary. We have already signed the papers. We’re moving on Saturday.”
“Saturdaaayyy!” exclaimed Sasha as she brought her left hand to her chest. The diamonds and emeralds that Tommy buys for being late to dinner every night, for the missed birthday parties, for the lipstick on his collar glisten brightly on her fingers.
Sylvie cleared her throat, “Saturday.”
They sat sipping tea for a moment.
Sylvie pretended to listen to the music and asked about the composer which is a question Sasha waved off because she quite honestly, doesn’t know. She also asked her friend how she is. Sasha regaled her with tales of a lavish tour of Europe Tom was planning, as if that could make up for the fact he didn’t sleep here five out of seven nights. Then, she talked about Peter, their son, who was, “Doing quite well at the firm.”
Sylvie helped herself to a third cup of tea and Sasha rusheed off to grab some cakes she “forgot about until now.” Sylvie resisted the urge to roll her eyes and instead gazed at the art filling out the rest of the living room instead. Most of the art is black and white which bored Sylvie to tears, but recently, Sasha added a risque piece. It was the shadow of a woman lying beneath a cherry blossom tree. The shadow was a deep charcoal color and highlighted her curves and her edges. It was the shadow of a body that Sylvie once had, but is now long gone. The trunk of the tree was black, but the blossoms dancing on the canvas in deep pinks, purples, and stark white enchanted Sylvie- the way the artist captured a setting sun along the top of the canvas, with a few wisps of cloud cover. The piece always sent a shiver down her spine.
“Shame you’re gonna sell the stooorree,” remarked Sasha as she bit into a sky blue cake, interrupting Sylvie’s day dream. The frosting covered Sasha’s soft, pink lips and she dabbed them with a cloth napkin delicately.
“It is,” said Sylvie mournfully. She tried to hold back the tears by shoving an olive colored treat into her mouth. The rich almond flavoring permeated her nose and lingers, despite four or five sips of tea after and a second chocolate cake with a maraschino cherry on top.
“No one to pass it on to?” asked Sasha. She dramatically frowned with her lip all puckered out and her brow furrowed at Sylvie.
“You know we don’t have anyone,” chastised Sylvie.
“Jeezz, Sylv. I didn’t just mean kids,” she said while waving away the tears welling up in her friend’s eyes.
“Sorry,” mumbled Sylvie, feeling like a child. She set her saucer down on the tray to indicate that tea was done.
“I guess…I don’t know. We’re just too different. Having children was sooo easy for us,” bragged Sasha as Sylvie stood and collected her purse.
“What stopped you two? Just seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?” Sasha demanded as Sylvie marched past her for the door.
“You run a toy store and ain’t got no kids! Guess timing was just never right, huh?” she mused while Sylvie opened the door and stepped into the hallway.
“And now it’s just all overrrr,” Sasha threw her arms around her as Sylvie patted her gently on the back.
“Oh well, dearest. See you next weeeekk!” she called as Sylvie ran to the elevator.