Submitted into Contest #128 in response to: Set your story in a tea house.... view prompt


Asian American Contemporary Fiction

         The low-level gnawing guilt Diana felt about taking a few hours off from document review for the Steinberg case had not ruined her enjoyment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art yet; in fact it had the opposite effect of reminding her of who she was before law school and before her current 90 hour work weeks in corporate law. What she remembered most from her undergraduate art history degree related to the classical European artists showcased in other wings of the museum, but she had made a point to wander through the Asian art section before leaving. She admired a series of timeless ink paintings that reminded her of her trip to visit her cousin in Japan in April of her last year of law school – a trip that fortuitously coincided with the peak of cherry blossom season.  

              Turning a corner past the silk screens, she was astonished to find herself in a space that felt like the outdoors despite being in the middle of the museum, containing a Japanese tea house. As she started to explore the unexpected space, she saw a tall man of indeterminate age and race who looked oddly familiar ahead of her on the stone path. Realizing it was a little creepy and deciding she didn’t care, she sped up her pace to catch up to him, trying to figure out if she knew him from high school, although she didn’t remember going to high school with anyone this attractive, or maybe had a large lecture class with him in college. 

              One benefit of law school and her current job was that Diana was used to thinking quickly but speaking carefully. “Incredible how it can be so rustic, but also so elegant,” she commented as soon as she reached his side. 

              Caleb was jolted out of the mental notes he had been taking. His mother, the Japanese half of his gene pool, had been harassing him to come to the museum and see the tea house ever since he started his electrical engineering PhD at Penn. He didn’t have the heart to tell her he thought art for the purpose of beauty was a waste of human energy, and had finally needed a break from staring at a computer. He certainly hadn’t been expecting to talk to any women at the museum, but because of his mother he did know quite a lot about the tea house.

Pivoting towards Diana, he replied, “It was based on the simple style of Oguri Sotan, but built in the early 1900s by Ögi Rodö. It’s his only work outside of Japan.” As he spoke, the familiarity of Diana’s face crept up on him, making him self-conscious. Did he sound like a know-it-all, or like he was regurgitating information that was surely on a plaque somewhere at the entrance to the space?

              Diana looked taken aback, as if she was not used to men speaking intelligently. “Damn ok, are you a teahouse expert?” she asked, hoping she sounded flirtatious. It was driving her crazy that she couldn’t place his face in her memory.

              Caleb angled his body back towards the simple structure, embarrassed. “Nope, but my mom is, I guess it rubbed off.”

              Diana gave him a friendly giggle. “Well, do you know if the plants are real? Because I can’t decide.”

              He smiled. “I don’t know that, but do you want to hear about the garden designer?”

              Maybe it was the calm orderliness of the setting, which felt like a dream space separate from real life, but Diana said boldly, “What I want to know is where I recognize you from. Did you grow up here? Go to Tulane? Are you a lawyer?”

              “Grew up in San Francisco, no, and no,” Caleb replied, softening his answer with a “I really try to avoid hurricanes and typhoons.”

              The word “typhoon” from his mouth triggered Diana’s memory and she exclaimed, “Oh! Wait this is going to sound crazy,” before continuing, “but were you in Tokyo in April of 2012? Narita Airport the night of a typhoon that shut down the whole city?”

              Diana had just landed to visit her cousin, who had been transferred from the Sony office in New York to Tokyo. Because her cousin was there temporarily, she only had a shared company car, but had assured Diana it would be easy to take the train into the city from the airport. Except the night Diana arrived, she was held up deplaning by an elderly woman who needed a wheelchair, and by the time she cleared customs and collected her suitcase the airport was empty. She figured out the train wasn’t running but had no idea how to get into the city until she happened to run into a tall handsome man around her age who spoke English, who was traveling with an elderly Japanese woman. He had helped her get a taxi, and communicated her destination to the taxi driver. She had been so exhausted and flustered she didn’t ever ask for his name, just thanked him repeatedly as he brushed it off. And here he was, spewing Japanese architecture facts for her at a museum across the world.

              Caleb could not believe it was really the same woman. He had felt guilty for not being able to offer her a ride themselves, but the aunt he and his mother were visiting lived in the country side in the opposite direction from Tokyo. He wasn’t worried about her safety – any American woman his age could more than handle herself in a huge but incredibly safe city like Tokyo – but he had always regretted not asking for her name or phone number, and held out a silly hope that they would cross paths again. And here she was, right in front of him. 

              He had been so dumbstruck by her presence he realized he hadn’t replied, leaving her awkwardly standing next to the bamboo fence, looking at him expectantly. “Yes! I was there with my mother, visiting her family! I think I helped you get a cab.”

              Diana’s green eyes brightened, “Yes! You did! I would probably still be in the airport if it wasn’t for you, I always felt so bad I didn’t really thank you.” She looked around at the teahouse, weighing the pile of documents she had with the delight at this random encounter and opportunity for a second chance, before continuing, “Can I, um, buy you a cup of tea? As a thank you?”

              Caleb flushed, making Diana think he was about to decline.  Her eyes darted down to his left ring finger, finding it bare. He answered “I actually don’t drink tea, but do you have time to grab a beer?”

              As they walked out of the museum together, comparing notes on their Japan visits a few years before, Diana set a mental reminder to go back and see the rest of the Asian art section the next time she had a few hours off from work.

January 15, 2022 03:11

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