Warm Winds

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

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Friendship Fiction Inspirational

“My doorbell rang, one stuffy day of sticky popsicle sticks and blistering heat. I opened my door to no one, simply sun charred air and the smell of youth. There was no one but, there were eight mismatched cactuses and a pair of sneakers lying - hoping to not be forgotten - on my doorstep.” The woman fiddled with the laces of the sneakers on the table. The synthetic fibers left black smudges on her wrinkled fingers.

“Those shoes.” She paused and caressed the side of one. “These shoes. I knew these shoes. They were the ones I had bought all those years ago. But, the cactuses, where must they have come from? I didn’t know… but those shoes.” Her eyes were coated in a soft sheen. 

“They seemed to ask me questions. The holes asked what filled my heart. The scorch marks asked what I have walked through. The discolorations asked if I had changed. One was missing a shoelace, the other had been patched up. Pen marks and paint splotches even. All asked if I knew the person who had worn their soles from stiff to comfortable.” The woman picked up one shoe and examined it with sharp eyes.

“What distances have you walked?” She asked the shoe and set it back down.

“Regardless, there was one thing I knew for sure. It was my name embroidered on each heel.”

“Esmeralda.” The woman across the table whispered as if she was worried the name would shatter at any higher decibel. ”There was this day at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. It was so very quiet. The whole world seemed to buzz with the snap of invisible insects. We were drinking trash coffee when I asked her, buzzing with anticipation. ‘Why do your shoes say Esmeralda?’ She didn’t answer. All she did was take a sip of her coffee, make a face, and announce she was gonna get some more sugar.” Esmeralda laughed under her breath. The woman continued. 

“People would assume it was her name. They would greet her by name, calling her Esmeralda as if they had met before. However, to me and to her, it was obvious they had never met. Many times, she didn’t even bother correcting them. She let them continue believing Esmeralda was her name. It almost felt like she wished people would mistake her for you.” 

Esmeralda slowly brought the cup of tea to her worn lips. She slowly took a sip, relishing the heat. Slowly, she set the cup back down. The other woman waited without an ounce of haste. Both women acted like they had all the time in the universe when, in reality, they had less time than most. The first woman spoke again.

“When I bought the shoes, I told Beth that I didn’t feel like they were mine. ‘What do you mean?’ she had cried indignantly, ‘you bought them with your money, you were the one who carried the thin plastic bag out of the store. Is this not your room,’ she spun with arms outstretched, ‘that they reside in?’ She dropped her arms, ‘why are they not yours?’ ‘I’ve just wanted them for so long,’ I responded, ‘and here they are. It feels like a dream.’” The woman caressed the side of the shoes again as if years later she still needed to prove to herself that this is reality.

“Having cool sneakers is like a dream?” The second woman asked and took another sip of tea. Esmeralda smirked.

“That’s exactly what she said to me all those years ago. The sneakers were not exactly my dream; but, they brought me one step closer to it. Oh, the places I thought I would go in these. Back then, instead of answering her, I had flopped onto my bed. It squeaked in resistance. I reached my hands towards the ceiling. ‘I want to walk with shoes I bought through these places. I want the dirt from each new ground to stick on them and come with me every step. I want them to be proof that I lived my life cherishing each day; that I lived to the fullest.’ I gestured wildly at the magazine cutouts on my ceiling - roughly cut and curling at the corners. She just stood there watching me with the hint of a smile on her face.”

“Dreams.” The second woman closed her eyes. “I guess we only ever talked about my dreams. She was not really the open type. Her eyes always seemed to see something my camera and I could not.” She opened her eyes. “I had assumed her dream was connected to traveling in some way.”

“She did not have one. Not in the traditional sense at least. That day, after I had concluded my babbling, she laid beside me and gazed up at the photos. ‘My ultimate goal in life,’ she had said, ‘is to be happy and make others happy, nothing more, nothing less.’ Then she switched the subject back to my shoes. ‘Why don’t you put your name on them? Then you’ll definitely feel like they are yours.”

“She was always up for a good time.” The second woman nodded, the folds of her face shaking slightly.

“But,” Esmeralda leaned her frail frame forward - desperate wide eyes, “was she happy?”

“She was shining; she was the reason I turned from photographing landscapes to photographing people.” 

The conversation met a lull. Both women studied the ripples in their tea. They watched their reflections. Reflections of women, very different women from the ones in their stories. The drooping faces that stared back at them seemed unfamiliar when talking of old times.

Esmeralda rose with her hands rested on the table. The chair slowly scraped against the cobblestone floor. She turned her head towards the wide window. Eight cactuses sat on the sill. They had grown wild like a basket of yarn, tangled over the years. Gone were their days of sitting on doorsteps in blistering heat. The sun hugged the cactuses instead of piercing them. It was so warm. 

Esmeralda stepped one step at a time toward the window - lured in. The sun was reminiscent of her parents’ tea - warm and comforting. She smiled. The smile was, however, a little sad. Those lips knew they would never again touch a cup of their tea. Esmeralda reached a hand out towards a cactus, fingers stretching. The woman hesitated and reconsidered. She touched the ceramic pot instead. “I’m sorry, my memory seems to be failing me. What was your name again?”

“Grace.” The second woman, Grace, said from behind Esmeralda. She still sat in her spot at the table. “As my mother and grandmother and great-grandmother were called.”

“The name has been in your family for four generations?” Esmeralda said to the window.

“And many more before that.” The second woman rubbed the cup of tea between her hands. “How’d you get your name?” 

“It doesn’t suit me, does it? It definitely fits her better than me.”

“Beth had people tell her the same.” Grace took an unhurried sip. “They would tell her that Esmeralda suits her better than Beth.”

“I was named after someone as well.” Esmeralda watched the trees sway outside the window. “However, that person was not a family member.”

“Who?”

“Someone who does not exist.” A few leaves fell from the trees outside. Grace paused with tea halfway to her lips.

“A character from a film or a book?” She guessed. Esmeralda shook her head and explained further.

“My dad always said, ‘there is a reason as to why people we only meet once leave a lifetime impression. It is because we don’t see the whole picture, only a few moments out of a lifetime.’ Someone might seem to be a perfect aspiration because you were not given time to see their flaws.” The first woman attempted to take a sip of her tea only to find it gone. She sighed and set the cup beside the cactuses. “I was never able to live up to my name.” She paused again. Grace sat silently and waited for Esmeralda to continue. “After all, the person I was named after does not exist. She was only a perfect impression, one piece out of a larger whole.”

“Who was she?” Grace asked tentatively.

“She had barged into the tea house late one New Year’s Eve - completely disregarding the closed sign in the front window. Her curls were big, her jewels were big, and the amount of snow she let in was big as well. My parents rushed to her in outrage. ‘I’m sorry miss but we are closed.’ ‘I know,’ she responded, ‘but it’s no good entering a new year alone.’” Esmeralda reached for her cup then remembered it was empty. “As the story goes, they talked all night over some tea - exchanging stories and sentiments. Together, they welcomed in the new year. It was only a few hours but my parents gave me her name.”

“On the contrary,” Grace tapped the side of her cup, “I believe the longer you know someone, the stronger the impression they leave.”

“But then the mystery is gone.”

“I’d say people only become more mysterious the longer you know them. I knew Beth for two years and she never failed to surprise me.”

“I knew her for fourteen years,” Esmeralda responded curtly. A long grey hair fell from her loose braid and danced across her face.

“More time for her to subvert your expectations.” Grace’s cheery tone fell on unresponsive ears.

“She only subverted my expectations once.” Esmeralda was still cold and curt.

“It had to have been more than just once.” Grace was as determined as the sun.

“Only one comes to this old mind.” Esmeralda, on the other hand, was like the wind. Wind can be warmed by the sun and cooled by the night but it still blows either way.

“When was that?” 

“After she left,” The first woman turned her attention from the window and back to Grace. “I thought she’d come back.” The woman dropped her gaze to the floor. “I don’t know why I thought that. Why would someone who has only been left know how to stay? Regardless,” she took a breath and met Grace’s eyes, “I waited. I sat on the doorstep with my feet bare and waited. I sat there every day for three whole months. The world continued to move as I sat still. Leaves began to change colors and people started wrapping themselves in knitted layers. Meanwhile, I wrote in my little notebook. I wrote down all my ideas for this tea house - to make it a haven to escape the hustle of life and rest. Those ideas led to the tea house as you see it today.” Esmeralda gestured around her, at the sturdy wood table, the painted teacups, the wide windows, plants, stone floor, and soft lighting. There was a faint smile of pride on her face. 

“As I worked, my neighbors would pass by. Seeing me, they would ask, ‘Beth still hasn’t come back?’ ‘Maybe I was wrong,’ I’d answer, ‘maybe she won’t come back.’ ‘That’s possible,’ they’d reply. Then, I would question, ‘why am I still sitting here?’” The woman sat back down and rested her hands on the table. “Do you know how they responded?” She asked.

“How?” The second woman obliged.

“They said, ‘That is what we call hope.’

“Ya know,” Gace took a long sip, finishing off her cup, “Beth left me before as well.”

“That must be why you only knew her for two years.”

“No, this happened a few months after we met.”

“And,” Esmeralda choked on the words as if the question was too painful to ask, “she came back?”

“I ran after her.”

“Huh,” the woman smiled, “what kind of person would I be today if I had thought of that - all those years ago?”

“Who do you think you would have been?” 

“I don’t know; I shouldn’t let myself think that far.”

“Why?” Grace tilted her head.

“To wish I had run after her is to wish my current self out of existence. I may not be perfect and the journey was definitely never easy but I am proud of and like the person I have become.” Esmeralda folded her hands in her lap. “Who are you, Grace, for going after her?”

“I am a dreamer.” The second woman replied frankly.

“You weren’t one before?”

“No,” Grace tapped her empty glass, “I wasn’t. I never believed I could make a living as a photographer. Instead, I thought I would have some fun as a nomad then become what my family called a proper member of society - a college degree and stable job. Beth changed my way of thinking.”

“How so?”

“We argued.”

“Argued?”

‘Have you ever had the thing you enjoy the most be the thing you have no talent for?’ I would yell and hit the steering wheel. Then, I would talk with a hand as I rambled on. ‘I live off of my skill that has been cultivated through hard work and that isn’t enough.’ Beth would respond, ‘Could passion not be considered a talent?’ She would lean back in her seat and I’d tighten my hands on the steering wheel. ‘Everyone has a capacity for passion,’ I’d counter. Then, Beth would answer coldly, ‘I have no passion.’ ‘Don’t you have a dream?’ I’d ask, voice elevating again. I would continue to slam the wheel, ‘what is your most ambitious dream? Now take that and run full speed towards it. That’s passion.’ She would turn towards the side window, refusing to give my hypocrite self any attention.” Grace pulled her fingers into a weak fist.

“After a long angry silence, she’d finally respond with a delayed laugh, ‘is that what you have been doing? Perhaps you should take your own advice before imposing it on others.’ There was only one way to respond. ‘You’re right,’ I said.” Grace leaned back in her chair and watched Esmeralda’s reaction. A tear streamed down her face as she recalled long-lost memories. Grace waited, grown patient with the years. Finally, she asked the burning question.

“Why did Beth leave you?”

When my parents died, they left their tea house to me. If I wanted the tea house to stay alive, and I did, I couldn’t just leave it.” Esmeralda drummed her fingers on the table. She looked down and the drumming stopped. Confused, she examined her hand, wondering when it had become so wrinkled. “The thing is I wouldn’t be able to travel. ‘What happened to traveling?’ Beth had yelled, ‘This is your dream! How can you just give up like that?’” She tore her attention from her hand and back to Grace’s patient face. 

“She stomped up the stairs after me. ‘This is my responsibility!’ I threw my bedroom door open, ‘I have to protect and take care of this tea house that I cherish and was my parents’ whole life’s work!’ Beth slammed the door behind her, ‘but it is your dream! How can you waste it like this?’ She paused and set her jaw, ‘you’ve changed.’ Then, Beth swung the door open and stomped back down the stairs. She hastily grabbed a pair of shoes and threw open the front door - not bothering to shut it. I yelled out the open doorway, ‘Hey! You better return my shoes!’

Why did you change?”

It was the time between, I don’t know exactly how long it was - I stopped crossing off the days on my calendar. Simply, I would sit on a chair, eating a popsicle, watching the fan blowing the calendar on the wall. The day of the week would always evade me. I couldn’t remember what week it was let alone what day. Often, I forgot the month and even the year as well.” The first woman said with a smirk. 

“Regardless, it was the time between when I made the decision. The decision wasn’t giving up on my dreams, it was simply changing my dreams. I just realized what truly mattered to me. More than other places, I cared about where I was and where I am now - this tea house. One day, I realized that in order to move forward I didn’t have to move physically but move mentally.”

That’s it?”

“That's it. That day, I walked across the cool tiles of my kitchen - unfamiliar and familiar all at once. I slowly slid a jacket on and slid my notebook into the pocket. My head turned back for a moment and gazed at the empty house. Then, I left. I moved past my doorstep for the first time in months.”

Esmeralda grabbed their cups and disappeared into the kitchen for a refill. The tea was sweet, fresh, and warm in her hands. When returning, she carefully watched her feet as to not trip. Nearly to the table, the woman finally looked up. Her feet hesitated and the ancient cups shook in her frail hands. Grace had left and the table was empty. Esmeralda took a deep breath and continued to the table. She set a cup before Grace’s empty chair and sat in the opposing chair with her own. The first and only woman took a comforting sip and her eyes closed.

January 14, 2022 04:04

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